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Local Food Growers Could Benefit From Top Down Support

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The local food movement satisfies a lot of cravings shared by growers, restaurateurs, diners and consumers. It’s now firmly on the radar screen of lawmakers and policy architects, as well.

In April, federal, state and local officials met in Baltimore with more than 20 agricultural producers, purveyors and entrepreneurs from across the state of Maryland to hear their perspectives on the movement.

“Farm-to-table carries out so many of our priorities,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who led the roundtable at Chef Spike Gjerde’s Woodberry Kitchen.

As Cardin was quick to point out, Gjerde’s restaurant alone pumps $2 million back into the local economy every year through its focus on locally sourced ingredients and products.

Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Joseph Bartenfelder and Maryland Congressmen Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes joined Cardin at the roundtable to hear concerns and ask what government can do to encourage growth in the fledgling industry and advance the economic impact it provides.

“We want to understand how federal policy can continue to move in directions supporting local food [producers],” Sarbanes said.

Table Food Subsidies

Food crops and livestock can vary widely from farm to farm, but small agricultural operations all tend to run up against the same problems, said Will Morrow, a Frederick County hog farmer.

He and many other small-scale farmers would like to see more federal financial incentives shifted from commodity crops to table food production.

Insurance programs and federal backing make it relatively easy for farmers raising commodity crops — those typically fed to livestock — to receive large bank loans, Morrow said.

“If you want to raise watermelon or apples or pastured pork or beef, banks won’t loan you the money,” he said. “[T]heir view is that if the feds aren’t behind you, then it’s a high risk venture.”

Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, CEO of ECO City Farms in Hyattsville, agreed that government incentives should be extended beyond commodities. “One of the reasons we’re a nonprofit farm is because we couldn’t raise capital,” she said. “We need subsidies in support of that.”

She also suggested incentives, such as an agriculture-focused student loan forgiveness program to encourage young, educated people to consider farming careers, as well as perpetual easements on urban plots as a means of bringing food production as close to consumers as possible.

Addressing the latest Farm Bill, Chesapeake Bay Fund (CBF) Restoration Scientist Rob Schnabel recommended lowering the Environmental Quality Incentives Program limit of $450,000 for individual farmers back to its original cap of $300,000 in the next iteration.

“We’ll reach more farmers that way,” he said.

Thinning the Weeds

Unproductive regulatory requirements were a common quandary for small business owners attending the roundtable. “Greenhouses have to have building permits [in the city],” said Ted Rouse, of Big City Farms in Baltimore, whose operation has also run afoul of soil and erosion control permits and erosion plans that aren’t required of farmers in other counties.

Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, pointed out that many employees in the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other departments and agencies lack any actual agricultural background.

“Interpretations of regulations can vary greatly depending on whom you talk to and even within the office,” she said.

Immigration introduces another variable into the planning headaches suffered by Sarah O’Herron, owner of Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, and other farmers who hire seasonal migrant workers during the harvest.

“It’s a hugely complicated, hugely expensive process to go through,” O’Herron said. “I’ve done it for years and still can’t get it right. Streamlining that process would change our lives.”

Cardin assured farmers that the state delegation is focusing on Maryland’s unique immigration problems. “National programs don’t always meet a region’s needs,” he said. “We’re working on an immigration reform bill; absent that, we’re going to work on continuing and improving the program.”

Bartenfelder, meanwhile, confirmed that Maryland is working with the City of Baltimore to address the hoophouse issue.

“[Greenhouses] are going to become more important for farmers throughout the state because we have a limited growing season here and there’s demand … for a 12-month supply,” he said. “That provides an opportunity not only for the grower but also for the consumer, restaurants and businesses.”

Oyster Wranglers

One frequently overlooked segment of Maryland’s agricultural food production industry is that of shellfish growers.

“We supported [legislation] to have oysters from aquaculture established as a product of farming,” said John Shockley, president of the Maryland Shellfish Growers Association. “If we were to be recognized as [farmers], we could benefit from the Farm Bill in many ways.”

Oyster farmers also feel hindered by the dual process required to lease the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Shockley said.

“The state of Maryland’s got the gas pedal to the floor and the Army Corps of Engineers is hitting the brakes,” he said. “I’m not saying we need the Army Corps totally out of our hair, they need to be there for some things that come along, but not be there to slow down growth here. It’s not the case in other states.”

Timothy Divine, owner of Hoopers Island-based Barren Island Oysters, said he can’t make changes to address unique erosion and sediment problems on his leasehold without a permit from the Army Corps, which could take up to 18 months at the very least, roughly the same time it takes an oyster to mature.

Aside from that, “There’s no way to learn [proper technique] ahead of time, there’s not enough of us, and there’s no education system set up,” he said. “I literally relied on YouTube and trial and error.”

On the other side of the coin, urban planner and redevelopment expert Lehr Jackson, of Baltimore, said he has had conversations with owners of upscale restaurants in New York and other East Coast metropolitan areas who don’t yet realize that Maryland oysters are available year round.

“We’ve got to get that message to these big places that are unbelievably promotional,” he said.

Before wrapping up the roundtable, Sarbanes urged the entrepreneurs behind the local food movement to “work together as a collective, and make these points heard.”

With more than 130 registered farmers markets in the state and an annual sector contribution of nearly $3 billion, agriculture is clearly “the No. 1 part of our [state] economy,” Cardin said. “I think Maryland’s story needs to be told nationally, what we’re doing here needs to be replicated around the country. It makes a huge difference on our environment and on consumer choices and our economic growth.”