Farming in Frederick & Montgomery County, MD – Is there a future?

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Jan 16 2013 - 8:12am

Metro Business Media - Farming Metro

Can you believe that there are school-aged children that have no idea where tomatoes come from?  Did you know that chicken doesn’t just “come from the store?”  These questions were raised at a conference held last weekend at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, MD.

The event was Farming at Metro’s Edge: Securing the Future of Agriculture and Farm Communities in Frederick and Montgomery Counties.  The mission was to start a conversation between farmers and non-farmers in these two regions of Maryland, to determine how the groups can work together to create communities that care about where their food comes from.

Registration opened at 11a.m. on Friday January 11th and was followed by a locally-sourced lunch, provided by Bon Appétit Management Company.  The conference officially began at 12:45p.m. with welcoming speeches given by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and member of the Board of County Commissioners, David P. Gray.

The first portion of Friday’s discussion was titledSetting the Stage: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, and Where We’re Headed.  Jeremy Criss, Agricultural Services Manager of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, and Colby Ferguson, Agriculture Business Development Specialist of Frederick County Business Development & Retention, commenced the session with some slideshows.

Criss’ presentation led the audience through a brief history of farming in North America, beginning with Native American agriculture.  The arrival of European settlers led to woodland disruption as extensive plots were cleared for farming.  Then came the introduction of the grain mill, various methods of transporting food, steam & gas powered tractors, the invention of the refrigerator, the decline of local canneries and the evolution of dairy farms.  Criss also touched on the impact of The Great Depression and the introduction of the first USDA Farm Bill in 1933.  The remainder of his show consisted of statistical charts relating to Frederick and Montgomery Counties’ populations, farmland, and preservation.

Ferguson’s report provided information on the counties’ consumption and production of crops & livestock, the differences between the Farm Bill of 2008 and the proposed Farm Bill of 2012, utilization of cover crops, and the amount of petro-chemical fertilizers distributed onto farmland over the past two decades.  He also incorporated the Eastern Shore’s shift from operating canneries to the production of livestock and growing feed crops.

Next, the first of three panel discussions were held.  The topic of Panel 1 was Navigating the Economic Future of Our Region’s Agriculture into the Next Generation.  The Chair, VP of Montgomery County Council Craig Rice, opened with a brief speech ensuring farming practices in our area are sustainable and secure.  To save time on introductions of all the panelists, their seating charts were included in informational packets handed out to attendees (lists found here). Moderator Dick Stoner, Managing Partner of Stoner Family Farms & Founder of Locale Chesapeake was then able to promptly begin with his questions.

Dick first asked, “What is it that keeps you doing what you’re doing now?”  He followed up with inquiries about the panelists’ passion and vision.

Steve McHenry, Executive Director of MARBIDCOexplained how he helps facilitate rural conservation and holds an interest in helping young, beginning farmers.  “Roughly 1% of the population is involved in agricultural production.  Furthermore, the average age of farmers is 57 years old,” he shared.  Facts like these don’t sound too promising, which is why Dick is passionate about assisting industry newcomers.

Rick Pruitz, a Transferrable Development Rights consultant from California, said his passion was for land preservation.  He described TDR as a method of zoning and declared, “Montgomery County is a leader in TDR!”  He explained that while it can be difficult to adopt, it is extremely important.  “We lose over 1 million acres of rural land to development a year in the U.S.” he divulged.  Rick also stressed the need to maintain balance between urban areas and countryside.

Chuck Schuster, an Extension Educator of Commercial Horticulture from the University of Maryland Extension, is enthusiastic about agriculture and the Local Food Movement.  He is able to take science-based research information and relate it to farmers so they can assess and improve their methods.

One of the farmers, Wade Butler of Butler’s Orchard, spoke of his involvement in the industry.  After graduating from the University of Maryland, his parents purchased 37 acres in Germantown, MD for farming.  Over time, their variety of operations changed due to public demand.  Now, Wade understands the need to be flexible and adaptable.  He labels farming an “enjoyable lifestyle,” and hopes it will transition into the next generation.

The fourth question posed to the panel centered on just that – What is needed to encourage the next generation to become more involved in the local food movement and supporting farmers?

John Fendrick, owner of Rock Hill Orchard, recalled a time when large buses full of Chinese tourists visited his farm.  Since then, he’s become inspired to plant crops that appeal to other cultural groups, so they can look to local suppliers rather than import foods that are diet staples.

Colleen Histon, owner of Shepards Manor Creamery, pointed to farmer’s markets.  She said the number of markets has been increasing because customers value the face time they have with farmers.  Being able to speak directly with your food producer is a great way to educate yourself and influence the market.  Colleen also highlighted Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) as a way to get the public more involved with the farming communities.

Mr. Schuster spoke up about the New Farmer Pilot Project, which aides new farmers in getting the training, guidance, and land they need to start their businesses within Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve.  He also discussed the idea of taking leftover foods from businesses and processing them in commercial kitchens so they could be redistributed to the homeless.

After the final questions and responses had been given, Craig Rice returned to the podium with closing statements to wrap up the panel.  He mentioned a Wall St Journal articleemphasizing vertical farming in urban settings, asserting a “need to take a serious look at this, and work with stakeholders in local, state, and federal governments to make it happen.”

The last hour of the conferences’ first day was dedicated to the Keynote Address: Connecting the Dots between Farm Policy and USDA’s My Plate, featuring speaker Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Kathleen presented some slides highlighting the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.  She shared with the audience that during the 1990’s, the U.S. became a net importer of fruit.  She also pointed out that we still import food even when crops are in season here.  Kathleen then drew attention to the top 5 trends in 2012 related to food consumption:

·         Locally sourced meat & seafood

·         Locally grown produce

·         Healthful kids’ meals

·         Hyper-local sourcing (i.e. restaurant gardens)

·         Sustainability

In regard to lower income households, Kathleen pointed out programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)and Women, Infants, Children (WIC)have nearly doubled their outreach by partnering with local farmers markets. 

In conclusion, Kathleen discussed a few projects the Dept. of Agriculture had funded, such as building high tunnels for crops.  She then opened the floor for a few questions from the audience before the day’s final networking session began.

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