Is Montgomery County Policy Putting It's Farming Community at Risk?

Metro Business Media

This past weekend event, Farming at Metro’s Edge: Securing the Future of Agriculture and Farm Communities in Frederick and Montgomery Counties led into a second Panel – Keeping Agriculture Viable in a World of Growing Environmental Concerns: Solutions that Work – and Pay.  Roger Berliner of the Montgomery County Council chaired, and Dana York, President of Green Earth Connection, moderated.

The first set of questions revolved around stewardship practices and how they have or have not been profitable for the farmers.  Some methods involved installing manure pits, no-tillage practices, integrative pest control management, and diversifying livestock.

Greg Glenn, Farm Manager at Rocklands Farm, recognized the profitable benefits of bringing a variety of products to market.

Dough Lechlider, President of Laytonsville Landscaping, said, “Stewardship practices may cost, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to less profitability.  You’ll have a better product to offer.”

David C. Heisler, Conservationist/Farmer/Beekeeper & member of Montgomery County Agricultural Advisory Committee and Farm Bureau Board of Directors, brought to light the advantage of using cover crops and secondary plantings.  He maintains these methods help the soil, divert pests, and support beneficial insects that help crops prosper.  In addition, Robert Butz of Windridge Farm asserts that cover crops help keep the soil in place and balance nutrients.  He also praises the no-till technique, claiming that combined with using a cover crop system, it is the most profitable practice.

Some programs, such as cost sharing, were also addressed.  Cost sharing is a way in which farmers are given some financial assistance with their management practices.  However, Pam Saul, Farm Manager at Rolling Acres Farm, pointed out that it is still limiting.  She insisted the cost share doesn’t extend towards maintenance of a fence she was required to place on her horse farm, to keep them from going into a creek, even though she claimed horses don’t naturally wade in the water.  She explained that since the erection of the fence, the weeds opposite have grown and deer populations have invaded and passed through the creek.

In response to the question of issues, challenges, and opportunities raised with environmental regulation, Pam retorted with a question of her own – “Why is there so much regulation when there are so few farms in Montgomery County?”

John Stump, Commercial Loan Manager with MidAtlantic Farm Credit agreed that there was an endless stream of regulation.  He insisted that farmers are in need of more helpful information from current science to better manage their land.

On the plus side, Russell Redding, Dean at the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Delaware Valley College stated, “We have the opportunity to build phenomenal coalitions around protecting the bay,” which is an imperative action.

Other critical questions related to ways of collaborating and reconciling with the public.  It was agreed upon that non-aggressive conversations need to be held in order to help local communities understand the challenges farmers face, and how to balance everyone’s needs.

Mr. Redding felt the identification of the next generation of agricultural leaders was important, as well as the need for them to look to the industry as a viable career opportunity.  “They need to be technologically competent and articulate, and well aware of the finance question,” he expressed.

Russ Brinsfield, Executive Director of the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, articulated the need for support from non-farmers for agriculture to survive.  “Tell your local delegates to support the agricultural budget,” he continued.

Pam then conveyed her disappointment with the fact that children are so far removed from agriculture.  Some who visited her farm on a 4th grade field trip inquired if her miniature donkey, Skittles, was even real.  Pam feels that society needs to honor farmers as they do teachers, veterinarians, and doctors, in order to close the gap.

As they did following the first panel, event participants collected for roundtable discussions to generate lists of the most important actions which can be taken to help keep farming profitable

Following lunch, attendees gathered for the final panel of the conference; We Are In It Together – Building Support for Thriving Agriculture and Strong Farm Communities.  Françoise Carrier, Chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, also chaired the panel.  Moderator Edward Thompson, Jr., Former Chairman of Montgomery County’s Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board, first inquired about what was most important to collaborate on to bring about a brighter future.

The Executive Director of Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC), Christine Bergmark, suggested communities focus on eating local all year round.  By visiting farmers markets and CSAs, consumers have greater opportunity to connect with the source and continue the dialogue necessary to maintaining a balance between the needs of farmers and consumers.

Cheryl Kollin, Principal of Full Plate Ventures and member of the Montgomery County Food Council, highlighted her newest project Farm to Freezer.  She proclaimed around 40% of food is wasted when it isn’t sold at market.  Farm to Freezer’s goal is to collect that surplus food from farmers, process it in kitchens, such as those offered by local churches, and freeze it.  Then it can later be prepared and redistributed to thousands of homeless citizens, as a means of getting them proper nutrition.  Participating farmers are supported through tax-deductible donations.

One recurring issue noted was legislators’ lack of knowledge about farming and the hurdles farmers face, despite the fact that they write up policies that significantly affect farmers.

Overall, panelists and participants concurred that there needs to be more discussion and outreach between farmers and non-farmers.  The public must become more aware of where their food comes from, what is needed to get it to them, and how they can help preserve the landed necessary to sustain them.

Rachel Armistead, a Frederick County resident and producer at Sweet Farm Sauerkraut, offered her opinions on the conference as a whole:

 “I was hoping to see more producers there.  It felt like mostly bureaucrat/organization type folks instead of mostly farmers, as I was imagining.  Also, being from Frederick County, it felt like it focused mostly on Montgomery County instead of giving both counties equal weight.  Montgomery County does have more urban pressure than Frederick County, so it makes sense, but it seemed a little like, ‘why include Frederick County at all?’  On the positive side, it is nice to know that our two counties are trying to grow intelligently and to reconcile the need for both urban and rural space.  There are many people in all professions, including governmental ones, that don't see the benefit of local farms and local food.  It was wonderful to see so many people in an organizational/regulatory role who obviously care very deeply for our counties' agricultural heritage.  Urban and rural are not mutually exclusive, in fact they need each other, and this conference left me hopeful that cooperation and successful relationships are in our future.”

A young prospective farmer, Jesse Wyner, also gave his take on the event, stating, “I was encouraged by the strong enthusiasm for increased education on not only agriculture, but sustainable farming practices and nature in general.  I was however a little disappointed in the lack of dialogue in relation to GMOs and the role that major agribusiness is having on small local farms.”

The youngest participant, Grace Reichardt, 17, offered her thoughts as well.  She said, “As a student and as someone uninvolved in agriculture, the conference illuminated a lot of issues that farmers here face that I definitely wouldn’t have understood or even known about.”

For more information and accessibility to the slideshow presentations, please visit http://www.farmingatmetrosedge.com/   Raw video footage from the conference can be viewed on my personal YouTube channel.

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