Western Md. Farmers Vent Frustrations at Meeting

2/8/2014 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

CUMBERLAND, Md. — More than 40 Western Maryland Farmers came to the Allegany County Fairgrounds Jan. 30 to attend an “agricultural summit” hosted by U.S. Rep. John K. Delaney of Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

“I want to meet with people throughout my district to hear what is most important to my constituents,” Delaney said. “This is an agricultural event. We are going to be talking about the Farm Bill we just passed. I voted for it and I supported it. The bill is very important to my district and farming is a very underappreciated and underestimated industry in Maryland. I am not certain that government is as focused on it as it should be.”

The 6th District starts in Montgomery County and includes most of the rest of western Maryland along the Potomac River, all the way to Garrett County.

“I do have sort of an agricultural background through my wife,” Delaney said. “I grew up in New Jersey just outside of New York City, but my wife is from Idaho and her dad ran a potato farm outside of Twin Falls. That farm was in his family for several generations.”

Delaney and Congressman Steny Hoyer, 5th Congressional District, were the only two representatives from Maryland who voted for the Farm Bill.

Not all of the money appropriated in the Farm Bill is earmarked for agriculture.

“The Farm Bill is about a third farm related,” Delaney said. “We have merged two different things into this bill. There is support for our farmers to get through the cycles that exist and to make certain this fundamental backbone industry in our country is sustained. But we also take care of people who were left behind with programs like food stamps.”

When asked if the Farm Bill should be split into two separate pieces of legislation, Delaney said: “It doesn’t matter what we call it, what matters is that we have the policy. The Farm Bill is important to farmers and the agricultural community in this country.”

Farmers present at the meeting were not shy about asking questions and commenting on topics that affect them. There were frank discussions concerning raising the minimum wage and how it would affect farm businesses; country of origin regulations; farm tags for animals; and pending food safety regulations.

Some farmers talked about more local issues such as conservation, environmental impacts and nutrient management requirements, which some felt were imposed without a clear understanding of the difficulty of farming in a mountainous terrain as opposed to the flat Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Frustration boiled over more than a few times on the issue of state regulations.

“It sounds like you don’t feel like you have a particularly strong voice in the policies created in Annapolis,” Delaney told the crowd.

“Our local people try, but they are out-voted,” shouted out one farmer.

“In my opinion, agriculture is underestimated and the political environment in Maryland has been very urban, and political success has traditionally been paired with that outlook,” Delaney said. “I have a different outlook as I straddle the two different perspectives, and we should think about things we can do to have an effect on our state officials. I can hold a meeting down there during the session and the officials will show up.”

The farmers in attendance appreciated the meeting and were encouraged by Delaney’s comments.

“He does a real strong job of defending the Farm Bill,” said Carl Robinette, who raises beef cattle in Flintstone, Md. “There are just a bunch of other issues and we need to get much deeper down to the nitty gritty types of problems, but this is a start. The congressman seems like someone we can talk to and least he will come out here and listen.”

“This was extremely good, productive meeting,” said Georgene McLaughlin of Oldtown, Md., president of the Town Creek Watershed Landowners Association. “We raise beef, horses and chickens. I like that he actually came and that he is willing to help us with some state regulations, not just federal. He is listening to what we are saying. If he sets up a meeting, I will go.”

McLaughlin said it’s a much different environment farming in the western part of the state with more ridges and valleys than in other parts of the state.

“The rain hits the top of the mountains and runs down to the bottom and we have extreme flooding, and what would work in one part of the state does not always work in this part of the state,” she said. “It is hard to farm up here in the mountains. We are limited to the valleys; we don’t have big, long, flat fields, and a lot of the regulations further limit what we can do with our properties.”

“It’s terrible and it is very difficult up here to make a living farming,” said Glen Stahlman, who raises freezer beef in Allegany County. “I spent a lot of my money and a lot of time building waterway crossings and manure storage. I have done everything I have been asked and it is expensive. They have a thing about fencing off streams. I have one field up there that if I did that, the fences would actually cross. Those are the things that need to be taken care of. Our streams up here are 12 to 15 inches wide and to fence off 30 feet is ridiculous.”

Most farmers were happy an official came so far west.

“I am thankful he came as we don’t get many federal politicians up this way,” said Doug Workman, who runs a Frostburg, Md., beef operation. “I think he answered the questions as best he could and I’m sorry it didn’t last a little longer. I think there were a few more questions that should be asked.

“I came just to hear what he had to say and I am relieved that there were questions that mirrored my concerns about fencing the streams,” he added. “We do have flooding in this area that takes out fences. My point was to not let these environmental groups take over the federal government as they have taken over the Maryland government.”

Becky Yost wears several hats as an ag and natural resources Extension educator and master gardener coordinator in Allegany County. Yost regularly hears lots of complaints.

“I was pleased with the turnout of farmers that we had,” Yost said. “The weather is a very big challenge up here. We get a lot of snow in the winter. We have very rocky soil and that can be challenging for many things whether it is plowing your soil or fixing your fences. A lot of the farmers feel that they are very distant from the rest of the state of Maryland and a lot of farmers feel that they are very under-represented in Maryland government.

“I hear a lot of those complaints because we are the ones that have to share the information with them,” she added.

Will McDonald, Delaney’s communications director, said the goal is to hold similar ag meetings every three months in the district.

“The last big agricultural event was in Washington County last August, targeted toward Washington and Frederick counties,” McDonald said. “Congressman Delaney comes from the private sector and he is the first to admit he is not a farmer, but he represents a lot of farmers and it is a huge industry in Maryland.”

Dr. William McGowan, the state director of USDA Rural Development for Maryland and Delaware, said even though he’s had a 30 percent reduction in his workforce, he’s committed to moving more of his agency’s funds into rural communities.

“Our resources are stretched to the limit, but we are doing what we are charged to do as we put more funds into the community,” McGowan said. “We are going to work smarter to move those funds into the rural community. The Value Added Producer Grant deadline is Feb. 24 and there are folks in our office to help you get there.”<\c> LF20140208S_hemphill-farmer-meeting-01-02

Photos by Rick Hemphill

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Dr. William McGowan, state director of USDA Rural Development for Maryland and Delaware, speaks to the group.


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