Maryland’s agricultural interests met last weekend to discuss environmental and economic challenges in the industry’s future.
“The basic question is what do we need to do to have vibrant farm and agricultural communities at the edge of metropolitan [areas] for the next generation,” said Royce Hanson, who was chairman of the conference’s planning committee.
“It’s very important because the total amount of farmland has enormous potential not only for continuing export of commodities, but also the continued production of local food supplies,” he said after the conference, which was sponsored by a coalition of dozens of farming, community, environmental and government organizations.
There were 230 farmers, governmental organizations and nonprofits at the conference, held at the Universities of Shady Grove in Rockville Jan. 11 and 12. They discussed farming’s future in Montgomery and Frederick counties.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said at the start of the conference that regulations should be more realistic and easier for farmers to navigate, according to a written copy of his remarks that his office provided. He also talked about helping farmers connect with consumers and use new technology to become more efficient.
There were 561 farms in Montgomery County in 2007, according to a 2007 Census of Agriculture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from 577 in 2002. The number of acres involved in farming also dropped, from 75,077 acres to 67,613 acres.
The number of Frederick County farms grew from 1,273 to 1,442 in that time, and the land used in farming increased from 195,827 acres to 202,087 acres.
The industry as a whole contributes more than $240 million to the county’s economy, according to information provided by Montgomery County officials.
The conference was inspired by a similar one 30 years ago, Hanson said, the fruits of which helped bring about the creation of the Agricultural Reserve, the swath of northern and western Montgomery county that has been preserved for farming and farming-related industries.
“After 30 years, we ought to look at the future and include Frederick County as well as Montgomery County,” he said, pointing out that Montgomery County farmers use many agricultural support businesses in Frederick County.
Attendees discussed how to keep farming sustainable and environmentally feasible and how to better encourage collaboration between farmers and non-farming entities, like nonprofits or governmental institutions.
Another question was how to keep farming economically viable.
“For folks like myself — I’d like for them to make a full-time living farming as well, because it’s a full-time job and them some,” said Wade Butler, a co-owner of Butler’s Orchard in Germantown.
“Farming takes enough savvy, intelligence, education and decision making as any other career,” he said.
One factor was making sure farms are able to adapt to changing consumer demand. The market is “constantly changing,” Butler said.
Another problem was making farming accessible to young people. The average age of Montgomery County farmers is 57 years old, according to Steve McHenry, executive director for the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation.
“Agriculture has a number of challenges for the producers today, let alone the producers that are interested in farming in the future,” he said.
“One of the things we need to do is build supply chains at the local scale,” said Casey Hoy, an expert in Agricultural Ecosystems Management who teaches at The Ohio State University. He explained that entrepreneurs in the past typically developed their businesses alone, and that collaboration with other like-minded business owners happened “slowly over time, and more by chance.”
Other farmers saw the conference as a way to educate the public about the challenges they deal with every day.
“My hope for the conference is that it’s a good opportunity for farmers to help educate non-farmers as to what we do,” said Robert Butz, who grows corn, wheat, and soybeans on his farm, Windridge Farms.
“Let’s face it, very few people farm,” he said. “The less people farm, the fewer people understand about agriculture.”
“The increasing environmental regulatory burden is significant,” something new farmers need to know, Butz said.
Caroline Taylor, of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, said another priority should be figuring out what governmental and nongovernmental groups can do to expand production in farms in Montgomery and Frederick counties.
Providing fertile ground for area producers would be another challenge, she said.
“The bottom line is figuring out other financial incentives and programs to help lower barriers to farmers getting on acreage in Montgomery County, including access to or aquisition of land ... It’s time to look at the next sort of creative tools in the box for the next 25 years.”
A report of the conference’s recommendations would not be available for a few weeks, Hanson said.