A look at farm troubles, triumphs

The Baltimore Sun

There will be a corn crop next year and farmers will continue plowing their fields, milking their cows, feeding their chickens and selling their goods at market.

But I won't be around to report on it. The newspaper is ending this weekly farm column.

As I look back over a long career, I think about the respect I developed for farmers. They work hard and work smart or they don't survive.

They are part of the largest industry in the state. They feed us at a fraction of the cost of food in other nations while constantly battling the uncontrollable threats of Mother Nature.

As a reporter, I sought to point out the contributions of agriculture to our economy and to our way of life. I tried to give farmers a louder voice at the bargaining table of government.

As I scan through a pile of farm story clippings, here are some things that stand out:

* The incredible change of attitude on the part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation toward farmers.

After blaming farmers for most of the ills of the bay for years, the environmental group admitted its past mistakes in 2006 and put its clout behind legislative initiatives designed to keep farmers in business. It concluded that an acre of farmland was better for the health of the bay than an acre of residential development.

* A story in 1998 that pointed out Maryland was on the verge of becoming an island surrounded by states that had approved dairy compact legislation that would allow for the establishment of a minimum price farmers were to be paid for their milk.

The article resulted in the General Assembly doing an about-face and passing dairy compact legislation here after the Senate had killed the bill.

I was flattered when former state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley told a meeting of the Maryland Farm Bureau that my story might have saved the state's dairy industry.

Unfortunately, the next year Congress outlawed all dairy compact legislation.

* A recent story pointing out that MidAtlantic Farm Credit, a cooperative banking system operated primarily by farmers, had hardly any of the financial problems of other lenders that caused the current credit crisis.

While other lenders in Maryland reported nearly 8,000 foreclosures during the three months that ended in September, MidAtlantic had less that 12 during the entire year throughout the Mid-Atlantic region it serves.

* Recognition of FireFly Farm, a tiny goat farm outside the tiny Garrett County town of Bittinger, as a producer of some of the finest goat cheese in the world. Some of its cheeses were picked over those produced in England, France and Italy at the London World Cheese Awards.

* Farmers, rural bankers, businessmen and total strangers coming to the aid of a Garrett County family that had lost its barn during a tornado.

Nobody asked for help, but a convoy of vehicles - mostly pickup trucks - arrived the morning after the storm. An army of men, women and children brought tools and food and began rebuilding the barn. It said a lot about life in rural Maryland.

* A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1998, pointing out that agriculture - including all phases of the production of food and fiber - was a $17.8 billion-a-year business, employing more than 400,000 people, in Maryland. It surprised a lot of people that farming was Maryland's biggest business.

* During an era when big farms kept getting bigger as a means of survival, Jack Gurley and his wife, Beckie, showed the country that it was possible to make a comfortable living on a 6-acre Baltimore County vegetable farm.

They grew organic vegetables and sold directly to consumers through a system called community-supported agriculture. Consumers invest in the farm and pick up weekly supplies of produce during the growing season. Their farm was considered one of only a few of its type in the country. State and federal agriculture organizations held a field day at the farm so that others could learn farming from the Gurleys.

* Myron Wilhide's crusade to save Maryland's rapidly disappearing dairy industry. The Carroll County dairy farmer was the driving force behind the Maryland Dairy Industry Association.

* Randy Sowers turning his back on conventional dairy farming and taking the big financial risk of setting up his on-the-farm milk processing plant and offering home delivery.

The Frederick County farmer's move is still being watched by University of Maryland officials and other farmers as a possible way of saving the state's dairy industry.

* The near-demise of Maryland's more than 350-year-old tobacco industry as a result of a tobacco farmer buyout plan presented by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

* The threat to Maryland's agricultural heritage by the rapidly rising value of farmland. Due to development pressures, Maryland has the sixth-most-expensive farmland in the nation. State agriculture officials called it a "scary situation" and said it is major threat to the future of farming in the state.

* Maryland has 40 percent more women farm operators than the national average. Women were the primary operators of 15.7 percent of Maryland's 12,100 farms in 2006. For the nation as a whole, only 11.2 percent of the farms were run by women that year.

* A three-part series in December 2007 on the continued demise of Maryland's dairy industry. Stories pointed out that state had lost 85 percent of its dairy farms since 1970. Five counties had lost all their dairy farms, and three others were down to their last farm.

The plight of dairy farmers was not limited to Maryland. It was a problem throughout the Northeast. But most of these states had passed legislation to help their dairy industries, including the payment of subsidies, tax credit and the establishment of a minimum price farmers are to be paid for their milk.

I learned over the years that farming is a tough business.

I wish you success in the future.

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