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Riley helped restore respect to Maryland agriculture

He stands 5-feet-7 and wouldn't top 170 pounds unless he was holding an "oven stuffer" roast chicken.

Yet Lewis R. Riley, the soft-spoken Eastern Shore poultry farmer turned state agriculture secretary, is viewed as a giant by many in Maryland farming, the state's largest industry.

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Riley, 71, who served as secretary under three governors, recently announced his retirement and is expected to leave office this week.

When Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers, said, "He will be missed," she echoed the thoughts of farmers throughout the state.

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"Farmers think the world of him," said Hoot. "He was the guy who came to their defense after they were beaten down by [Gov. Parris N.] Glendening and made to feel they were the roots of all environmental evils."

As secretary, Riley forged a new relationship with an old adversary -- the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Now, the environmental group praises farmers as stewards of the land.

"Given a choice between an acre of farmland and an acre of residential development, the best thing for the bay is farmland, without a doubt," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Riley helped heal the rift between state government and farmers by ushering in more user-friendly farm nutrient management regulations designed to reduce pollution of the bay.

Riley oversaw a 15-month study on the future of farming in Maryland last year that recommends more than 100 ways to make farms more viable.

He is also credited with giving farmers "a place at the table" in Annapolis whenever agriculture issues were discussed.

Still, there are major challenges ahead for his successor, who has not been named.

"Maryland, like other Northeast states, is fast becoming more urban," Riley said during an interview at his farm near this rural Wicomico County hamlet.

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As a result, farmers and farmland are disappearing at a rate more than double that of the nation as a whole.

The next agriculture secretary "will need to find ways to help farmers stay in farming," Riley said, and make government and citizens aware of its importance to the state's economy. Retaining farms and farmland is a challenging assignment, for which Riley offered a simple solution.

"The best ag land preservation program is a profitable farm," he has said many times over the years.

That wasn't always the perception.

"A few years ago, farmers were viewed only as someone who destroyed our water and our quality of life," he said. "Nobody seemed to consider their contributions to our economy."

Riley has had quite a run in public service. His resignation marks the end of a nearly 45-year career during which he also served two terms each in the House of Delegates and the Senate. He was elected to the Wicomico County Council when he was 27.

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His political career hatched from frustration with trying to get the county to repair the ruts and gullies in Parsonsburg Road in front of his home.

"At that time, commissioners were elected by an at-large vote, and the town of Salisbury, which had about a third of all voters, controlled the elections," he said. "If you were a farmer or lived in rural areas, you didn't have much say back then."

Riley set out to change that.

"I remember handing out pencils with the message printed on them: 'Wicomico County needs rural representation.' "

His message failed to catch on.

"I got about 6,000 votes, but that was 351 short of winning," he said.

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Four years later, Riley's theme hit home. The polling place parking lots were filled with pickup trucks on election night. When the count was completed, Riley was the top vote-getter, and Wicomico had its first Republican-controlled government.

He served 12 years on the council before he moved to the State House. He was first appointed agriculture secretary by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Perhaps the most difficult part of his career dates to the summer 1997, when fish kills in three Eastern Shore rivers closed portions of the waterways to recreational use, disrupted the state tourism industry and triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood.

"I was in a tough spot," Riley said, explaining that Gov. Parris N. Glendening was blaming the runoff of nutrients from farm fields for the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida.

But there was no proof of this, according to Riley, who wanted any new farm regulations based on research.

Glendening disagreed. The resulting regulations of the Water Quality Improvement Act were not popular with farmers. Some farmers insisted that they would go to jail before being forced to adopt the regulations.

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Riley left office in the heat of this battle. But his departure had nothing to do with Pfiesteria. His wife, Virginia, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he said.

"I wanted to share as many good times with her as I could during the time we had left," Riley said.

Farmers viewed Riley's conflict with Glendening as an example of him standing up for them.

"He's my hero," said Ken Bounds, vice president of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, a cooperative bank that is Maryland's largest farm lender. "Looking out for what is best for agriculture is in his blood."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lured Riley back to work in 2003. By that point, Riley's wife was bed-ridden, and the couple could no longer do the little things that had been a part of their 50-year marriage -- going out to dinner, attending church or taking in a Shorebirds minor league baseball game.

"You have to admire this guy," said Somerset County Circuit Judge Daniel M. Long, who served in the House of Delegates with Riley. "Agriculture secretary, that was his dream job, and he gave it up to care for his wife. That tells you what kind of a guy he is."

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He joined Ehrlich's Cabinet at the encouragement of his family.

One of the first things Riley worked on was the adoption of more user-friendly farm nutrient management regulations, which removed the right of inspectors to go on a farm without notice.

Farmers found the new regulations more acceptable, and Riley proudly points out that 90 percent of Maryland's farmland is under nutrient management plans.

"It was the farmers who wanted him back," Hoot said. "We wanted someone who could protect the watermelon people as well as the horse industry. We wanted someone who understood the broad picture."

As for the future, Riley said, he is not certain what he will do next. But he can rely on a wide range of experience to find a new endeavor.

He has been farming since he was big enough to work the strawberry fields. This dates to the 1940s, when strawberries were the major cash crop of the lower Eastern Shore and nearby Pittsville was known as the "strawberry capital of the world."

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Riley got into the chicken business when he was 14. He would follow the trucks from the town egg hatchery to the dump.

"There would always be a scattering of baby chicks mixed in with the shells," he said. "I would gather them up, take them home, raise them and sell them. We were poor, but we didn't know it. I would do whatever I could to earn a buck."

There were other jobs.

He drove a school bus when he was a student at Wicomico High School in Salisbury. His passengers included a couple of other up-and-comers -- Jim Perdue, who also grew chickens, and Paul Sarbanes, who also got into politics.

He had a manure-spreading business when he was 20. It involved cleaning out chicken houses, selling the litter to farmers and spreading it over their fields.

"That was hard work," he said. "I didn't make much money, but it taught me a lot about business. I learned what it takes to make payroll, to deal with taxes and overhead."

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For more than 50 years, he was a member of the Parsonsburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Riley was the youngest of nine children. His mother died from complications of childbirth when he was 10 days old. His grandmother, who had a farm nearby, raised him.

"I attended a two-room elementary school in Parsonsburg, but there were only enough students to fill one room. "I never went to college," he said. "There was no money for college. My degree is in common sense."

Said Bounds: "It was his common-sense approach to agriculture's problems that made Lou Riley so popular with farmers."


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