O'Malley picks up on Ehrlich effort to keep farms productive, profitable

The Baltimore Sun

For 15 months, starting in the spring of 2005, members of the Maryland Agricultural Commission met with more than 600 farmers around the state to learn how the state could help them be more profitable and stay in business.

They heard from dairy farmers who said low milk prices were forcing state dairymen out of business at twice the rate of the national average.

They heard from grain farmers who said the Maryland Cooperative Extension needed to get back to its roots and help them with production problems.

Farmers wanted the state to strengthen its right-to-farm laws by creating a deterrent to frivolous and nuisance lawsuits against farms.

Late in 2006, the 28-member group that represents a cross section of farming presented its findings and 109 recommendations to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in a 42-page report, "A Statewide Plan for Agricultural Policy and Resource Management."

Farmers were encouraged.

They felt that for the first time in a long time someone in state government was listening to their concerns.

Their greatest fear, however, was that the report would take its place with earlier efforts - on a shelf collecting dust.

There is a new sign that that will not be the case this time.

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced last week the formation of a panel from 15 state agencies to serve as a liaison with the state Department of Agriculture and farmers to help advance this sector in the state's economy.

To date, 100 of the 109 recommendations found in the plan are either under way or completed.

The recommendations all fall within three main categories of expanding markets and profitability; maintaining an adequate base of productive farmland; and advocacy, education and outreach on the behalf of agriculture.

In his announcement of the new initiative, the governor said the statewide plan was designed to help protect the state's priorities of strengthening our middle class and our small and family-owned businesses and farms.

"When our farmers are sustainable," he added, "the next generation will see farming as a viable career opportunity, and Maryland will preserve its open space and locally grown food industry."

"Very often plans such as these sit on the shelf and gather dust," said Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson. "This is not the case with this document."

The Agriculture Department listed the following recommendations from the report that have been acted upon or are under way:

* Activities that promote increased sales and consumption of locally grown products.

* Collaborations and programs that harmonize governmental regulations that affect agriculture.

* A campaign to let homeowners know they can adapt on-farm conservation practices to their own backyards to help water and soil quality.

* An increase in funding for farmer best management practices designed to reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

* The expansion of biofuels availability in Maryland.

* Additional funding for cover crop programs to help reduce the runoff of nutrients from farms into rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

* Adoption of state health department programs that encourage on-farm processing of agriculture products through training and licensing of farmers.

Eugene Roberts, chairman of the Agricultural Commission, said the most recent accomplishment was the appointment of agriculture liaisons within state agencies to form critical links for information sharing and problem solving on farm-related issues.

Of the 109 recommendations in the plan, only 13 are completed and 87 are under way or continuing.

Current priorities in the profitability area include advancing on-farm processing, biofuels, marketing, and business assistance to farmers .

On the subject of land preservation and conservation, priorities are to advance on-farm best management practices, farmland preservation, and forestry.

In the research and promotion areas of the plan, priorities include expanding education and recruitment efforts at the University of Maryland and Department of Agriculture to expand public relations activities.

Dairy farmers, those hard-working early risers that make up the third-largest segment of Maryland agriculture industry, must be wondering if anyone in the state is paying any attention to their concerns.

Maryland has lost about 85 percent of its dairy farms since 1970 and they continue to vanish at a rate of twice the national average.

Researchers have predicted that 15 percent to 35 percent of the less that 600 dairy farms remaining could disappear over the next decade.

More than a dozen East Coast states have adopted plans in recent years, including state subsidies and tax credits, to help their dairy industries. Maryland's efforts lag far behind.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly took a step in the right direction when it passed the dairy emergency trust fund bill. The bill would have established a fund to subsidize farmers during periods of low milk prices.

Unfortunately, however, the lawmakers could not come up with the needed money to finance the program.

The agriculture ombudsmen group includes representatives of the Department of Budget and Management, Business and Economic Development, Department of Juvenile Services, Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and Department of Transportation.

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