Maryland Farmers: Stewards of the Land, Providers of Local Food

Commentary by Earl F. Hance, Secretary, Maryland Department of Agriculture

With the 40th anniversary of Earth Day just a few days away, I want to draw attention to Maryland farmers as stewards of the land and providers of our local food. They are models for others to follow as their 25 years of cost-shared conservation practices illustrate. The agricultural conservation ethic and actions of our farmers provide a healthy, local food supply, strengthen our economy, keep farming profitable and of course protect the environment for the benefit of all Marylanders. There is more work to do in cleaning up our waterways and all of us, farmers included, must do more to achieve a restored Chesapeake Bay and MDA intends to work hand in hand with all parties to move Maryland forward.

Recent inductees into the Governor’s Agriculture Hall of Fame, the Ramsburgs in Frederick County and the Proutys in Calvert County are among just a few of the hundreds of farm families who have shown their conservation leadership over the decades. Others recently recognized by Governor Martin O’Malley with the first-ever Smart, Green and Growing Awards for their outstanding stewardship are the Colliers from Caroline County, the Kings from Dorchester County and the St. Mary’s Soil Conservation District.

On-farm conservation to reduce nutrient runoff and soil erosion does not just happen. It takes a conscientious effort, knowledge of cutting edge farming practices, soil science and crop needs, financial commitments of which most non-farmers are unaware and strong teamwork connecting technical, educational, and financial assistance. These partners include farmers, Maryland Department of Agriculture, soil conservation districts, University of Maryland, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal funding agencies. Working together, these partners install hundreds of environmental best management practices (BMPs) each year.

In the 25 years that Maryland has had an agricultural water quality cost-share program, farmers have spent approximately $14 million of their own money to match nearly $100 million in public funding to install and maintain over 20,000 best management practices on their farms. That equates to almost 2½ projects installed each and every day of the year for 25 years. Some of these practices include over 1,600 manure storage buildings, more than 1,000 composters, and about 1,000 concrete heavy use areas on Eastern Shore poultry farms. There are over 30 practices such as these and stream crossings and fencing, watering troughs, grassed waterways, streamside buffers and livestock manure storage structures that are eligible for cost-sharing. Even in these difficult times, Governor O’Malley has continued to include funds for these programs and farmland preservation in the budget.

The on-farm BMPs, as we call them, result in well-managed farms that provide cleaner water, healthy local food, profitable farms, stronger rural economies, and the open space from which all Marylanders benefit. There is great public support for local food and open space provided by our farmers. Nearly 80 percent of Marylanders surveyed said they preferred to buy local food if it was identified as being grown by a Maryland farmer. The Maryland’s Best branding program helps consumers identify locally grown products as will a new law passed just days ago by the General Assembly. The “Buy Local Bill” is a truth in advertising bill that will require retailers to identify for consumers what they mean when they use “local” in their promotions of fruits, vegetables and other products.

Governor Martin O’Malley and First Lady Katie O’Malley have led the way to more local purchasing of agricultural products and healthful eating including the Farm to School program, the Buy-Local Cookout, the Grow it Eat it backyard food gardening ( School systems all over the state are beginning to include some fresh local products in school lunches. One notable leader, Tony Geraci, the head of Baltimore City School System’s Food and Nutrition Program won a Smart, Green and Growing award for his commitment to purchasing local foods for school meal programs.

At MDA we are doing our part as well. We are members of the Maryland Green Registry and have been recognized for our sustainable practices at the department. At our headquarters, recent projects include solar panels, lighting retrofit upgrades, water conservation retrofits, and HVAC upgrades. These projects will have significant environmental impact by reducing greenhouse gases including 2.98 million pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the equivalent of CO2 emissions from powering 120 homes – within the life of the 14-year contract.

The agency has also worked with the South River Federation to install three rain garden/bioretention areas on the grounds that are helping to capture and filter stormwater and non-point source runoff that flows into Broad Creek and South River. Last year alone at the headquarters building, MDA recycled approximately 45.5 tons of materials including paper, cardboard, landscape debris, car batteries, automobile tires, aluminum, plastic bottles and toner cartridges.

Please join me this Earth Day in thanking farmers for all that they have done and continue to do to protect our natural resource, provide us with healthy, local food, strengthen our economy and preserve productive farmland for our benefit today and in future generations. Please take a minute to get to know your farmer neighbors or farmers’ market vendors. Ask them what they do to protect the Bay and get your questions answered first hand. Your local soil conservation district is also a great source of third party information and assistance in resolving any farm-based problems.

I also ask that you join me in taking a close look at our own backyard lawn and garden practices and learn what we can do to prevent stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Stormwater runoff from our backyards, pavement and other related sources is growing and polluting our waterways more each year. There are many tools at our disposal to turn this trend around. Check out Governor O’Malley’s Smart, Green and Growing website ( ), Backyard Actions for a Cleaner Chesapeake Bay ( ), the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center ( ) and to learn more. Together we are working toward a Smart, Green and Growing future for Maryland.

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