Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman recently met with farmers to discuss current challenges and concerns related to the future viability of farming in the county.
Approximately 30 people attended the roundtable discussion that was hosted by TLV Tree Farm in Glenelg. Participants included farmers, two Howard County Council members, and representatives from the Farm Bureau and county administration.
Kittleman said he organized the event in order to hear ideas on how the county’s recently revamped Office of Community Sustainability (formerly the Office of Environmental Sustainability) can better support farmers’ needs in the future.
“We are enlarging the scope of the Office of Environmental Sustainability, we are not downplaying the environmental part of that,” he said. “I want to make sure that what we do in county government is not going to be a hindrance to agriculture, but will be beneficial to [farmers].”
Kittleman pledged to continue holding periodic roundtables to monitor the reorganization’s progress and keep communication flowing.
One of the primary concerns farmers raised at the meeting was the negative light being cast on their profession by incorrect public assumptions and misrepresentation of their agricultural practices in Annapolis.
“I don’t know of any farmer who wakes up and says ‘I’m going to blow another $100,000 today and over-fertilize our property,’” said Frank Mirabile of Woodbine. “You’re not going to just let all your topsoil run away. We’ve got to have an avenue to educate people that we are not the source of the [runoff pollution] problem.”
More consequential environmental damage can be traced to chemical lawn services that target homeowners’ egos and apply treatments too frequently, said TLV Tree Farm Owner Jamie Brown. “Our golf courses are regulated; our farms are regulated; our homeowners aren’t,” he said. “You have dandelions? Too bad, because we have them.”
During her tenure, Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4) said she has noticed a divide between farmers and new residents who move into rural areas.
“Folks have moved out here who think the most activity that one would see would be horses or sheep grazing, and they don’t realize this is commerce,” Sigaty said. “The challenge is to develop a consciousness in the county that this is business, and business changes all the time in order to stay viable. It troubles me that we are allowing non-agricultural people to define what agriculture is.”
While farmers acknowledged the benefits of the state and county Agricultural Preservation programs, some felt the programs should be tweaked.
“There tends to be a leaning toward taking rights away from the agricultural preservation parcels, and that’s unfair,” said Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau. “We committed to doing agriculture for the rest of the farm’s life; you can’t take [away] the ability to sustain ourselves economically or any other way.”
Brown said farmers enter the program with a clear understanding of the rules and regulations, only to see county and state government implement unilateral rule changes, over time. “That’s when it tips the scale, and everybody starts getting mad,” he said.
Clark’s Elioak Farm owner Martha Clark said farmers need to retain flexibility to ensure they can meet changing market demands, which cannot be predicted. “We have to keep the definition of farming open so it doesn’t stop us from doing something beyond what no one thought of 15 years ago,” she said.
Go East, Young Farmer
Short of marrying into or being born into a farming family, it’s very difficult for young entrepreneurs to come up with the money to buy land and equipment to start (or take over) a traditional full-scale farming operation, participants agreed.
However, one option that’s becoming more attractive is that of small plot farming.
“One of the areas I see growing tremendously is people’s desire for organic food,” said farmer Cathy Hudson of Ellicott City. She suggested that smaller farm plots could easily be integrated within the county’s more developed eastern section to take advantage of that niche opportunity and further reduce food miles.
But even so, “It’s easier to farm in Baltimore City than it is to farm in eastern Howard County,” Hudson said, citing current prohibitions against keeping chickens as pets, while the number of cats or dogs goes unregulated. “Their laws are much more lenient … but there’s no reason you couldn’t do that in eastern Howard County.”
Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, acknowledged that she frequently receives calls from people eager to farm just one or two acres.
“Finding them that land, or somebody willing to mentor them, would be a great opportunity and a program I‘d like to see started here,” Zimmerman said. “Probably a lot of that could go on the eastern side.”
Infrastructure and Advocacy
Other issues, including non-commercial mulching and leniency on roads for large farm equipment, were raised as points of contention that need further clarification, either through the county’s Mulching Task Force or a review of Right-to-Farm statutes and zoning codes.
“Don’t just think about what the county can do,” Councilman Greg Fox advised the farmers in attendance. “Think about how we can potentially lobby the state and change some of the things that basically impasse your ability to farm or increase your profit.”
Addressing infrastructure, Brown advocated for a commitment to developing a food hub that would serve as a clearinghouse between farmers and restaurateurs and other consumers, cutting delivery distances and stimulating business for county farms.
Ironically, Brown and Hudson both noted, no U.S. Department of Agriculture processing plants exist within the state, and farmers aren’t permitted to transport unprocessed chickens across state lines.
“You have to wonder how [Pennsylvania] farmers can grow products out of our state, transport them, set up shop here and still make a profit,” Mirabile said. “We have to address overhead costs [as well as] taxes and regulation. You guys should be first in line to sell your products at a profit here. If you can’t, there’s got to be a reason, and part of that reason is overhead costs.”
Lambert Cissel, of Woodbine, suggested that proximity to the Nation’s Capitol presents an opportunity for an entrepreneur or perhaps the county itself to provide rental stables for vacationers who travel with their horses.
“People might want to come here with their horses, ride around some of the parks and visit Washington, D.C.,” Cissel said. “The last two or three years I’ve been traveling all over the United States, and I find it all over the place. It’s something new that could happen here.”
Stressing that county government’s powers and reach are limited, Sigaty suggested that county farmers develop themselves into a cohesive group that can speak to state legislators and members of Congress.
“Many of you [attended] the Day in Annapolis event on Feb. 18, but you need to come more often,” Kittleman said. “One day is one day. You need to reach out.”