Can Farmers Succeed at Metro’s Edge?

1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Laurie Savage Maryland Correspondent

ROCKVILLE, Md. — About 250 farmers and stakeholders came together last week to learn and share about the area they call home along the border of one of the country’s most populated areas, Washington, D.C.

As residents of Frederick and Montgomery counties, attendees of the Farming at Metro’s Edge conference know best the benefits and challenges of living near a large population.

The event, held Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11-12, at The Universities at Shady Grove, was co-sponsored by a coalition of farming, community, environmental and government organizations. The goal was to develop ideas for advancing productive and profitable agriculture and strong farm communities to serve the region for future generations, according to conference literature.

Colby Ferguson, agriculture business development specialist for Frederick County Business Development and Retention, said Frederick and Montgomery counties cannot produce enough of many agricultural products to cover what residents consume.

For example, Montgomery County’s residents consume 108 million pounds of milk a year, which would require 5,149 county cows to produce. But, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, only 703 cows reside there. Even fewer live there now.

More than 6 million chickens would be needed to provide Montgomery countians with enough chicken for the year, he said. Four to six chicken houses would have to go up on each farm in the county to produce enough chicken to feed its residents.

“It will be difficult for Montgomery County agriculture to meet those needs,” he said.

Ferguson also pointed out changes in the proposed Farm Bill that will affect the region’s farmers. Food and nutrition programs increased from 67 percent of the 2008 bill to 78 percent of the new proposed bill, while commodity support would decrease from 14 percent to 6 percent.

Fertilizer use in the region has changed drastically, Ferguson said, with nonfarm use trending up and farm use trending down.

“There are more sales of commercial fertilizer to nonfarms as farms,” he said.

Over the two-day event, several panels of farmers and other agriculture professionals presented their thoughts on the region’s economic future, keeping agriculture viable amid growing environmental concerns and building support for a thriving industry and community. They discussed their opportunities and challenges living on the edge of a metropolis.

Panelist Eric Spates, a Poolesville grain and hay farmer, said when he left for college, his neighbor inquired what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. When Spates said farming, the neighbor suggested he look for a job elsewhere to make money.

Spates’ family dairied, but he saw the struggle while loving the autonomy of farming. The family went to raising heifers and then settled on crop farming.

“We need to keep farmers active and operating, they have to make money,” Spates said.

Montgomery County residents love the agriculture reserve because open space is pretty.

“We’re close to an affluent market,” he said, but commuters are not patient with slow-moving equipment.

Farmers in the reserve are often impacted by legislation that is countywide but does not affect them the same way as residents in more populated areas.

Spates said one challenge he faces is cheap housing for farm labor. Some of his employees travel from several counties away to work on his farm. Deer damage leading to large crop losses is also challenging.

Following each panel presentation, conference attendees discussed issues and developed recommendations at 21 roundtables, with each roundtable presenting their best ideas to the entire group. Those ideas will be compiled into a final report following the conference.

Some recommendations that arose from the roundtable discussions were increasing agriculture education for students and the general public, farmer training and technical assistance. Participants warned that regulations should not be unfunded mandates and suggested that agricultural pursuits be allowed in more zones, more fresh food be served in schools and information for farmers be centralized.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan keynoted the first day’s events by sharing what USDA has done to help local farmers and the consumers they serve. She also congratulated attendees for their accomplishments to further local agriculture.

“I came here to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve,” said Merrigan, commending those who had the foresight to develop the program to preserve agricultural land.

She did not grow up on a farm but in a rural area next to a farm that she was able to visit on a regular basis. By the time she left for college, the farm was paved over.

Merrigan went on to commend first lady Michelle Obama for her efforts to elevate the issues of health and nutrition. She said the new My Plate icon does not replace the food pyramid but simplifies the message of healthful eating.

A half plate of fruits and vegetables is “quite different,” she said, and “represents profound opportunities for farmers.”

In the 1990s, the United States became a net importer of fruits and vegetables, bringing in fruits and vegetables even while they are in season here.

Merrigan said USDA is stepping up local and regional food efforts by launching the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

“Not every family needs a lawyer, not every family needs an accountant, but every family needs a farmer,” she said.

Introducing new legislation, and securing and writing rules to accompany new proposals takes time. The Know Your Farmer campaign simply looked at existing programs and whether they were being maximized.

Some successes include the ability to use food benefits at farmers markets and cost-share funding of high tunnels. A new online compass was introduced to help people locate resources. The tool will be refreshed four times per year and can be found by searching the Internet for the program’s name.

“I just love this tool. I think it could really help this area,” she said, encouraging conference attendees to use the compass to read success stories from other areas.

For more information or to see the final conference report when available, visit

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