As Maryland’s new ag secretary, Kevin Atticks wants to help farmers meet the challenges of the day — and see them thrive doing it.
It’s an approach Atticks has honed over two decades of supporting value-added agriculture. Before Gov. Wes Moore nominated him Jan. 17, Atticks was the executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association and the founder of consulting firm Grow & Fortify.
“The work that I have been doing over the last 20 years has been a lot like the work that I’m about to do, and that’s listening and learning from constituent groups, figuring out what they need, and then going after it,” Atticks said.
Atticks, whose selection is subject to Senate approval, has already started the listening and learning, meeting with department staff and members of ag organizations. He’s interacted with the Ag Department for years, but as secretary, Atticks said, he’ll be able to dig even deeper into the details of each program.
Atticks has received praise from groups including Future Harvest CASA, where he is a board member, and Maryland Farm Bureau.
In addition to working for farmers, Atticks will be advancing the concerns of Moore, who took office Jan. 18. The Democratic governor wants to strengthen Maryland’s economic competitiveness, with agriculture an integral part of that effort, Atticks said.
Food producers, from both conventional and urban ag, are obvious allies in Moore’s quest to address childhood poverty. And the administration wants to revitalize agriculture’s role in education so that students understand how important the industry is to their everyday lives.
“There’s a big interest in that. That has been discussed a lot,” Atticks said.
Atticks also hopes to bolster staffing at the Ag Department. The agency has a 12% vacancy rate, about twice the national average.
A Baltimore County resident and Bowie native, Atticks became interested in agriculture through local wine. His curiosity soon spread to farmstead cheese, small breweries and meat processors.
He also began to recognize policies that were preventing these up-and-coming sectors from taking off.
When he started his work, for example, wineries lacked a regulatory definition. That sounds small, but it meant regulators didn’t know which rules applied to a new business. A winery could be classified as a restaurant or a hotel, but those existing definitions weren’t apt.
Atticks worked to change that, and to establish a regulatory definition of agritourism — another value-added enterprise that has taken off in recent decades.
“We have found that any time a farmer wants to do anything anyone would consider to be different or interesting, they hit a wall,” he said. “And I’ve always seen government’s role as enabling these businesses — within reason and within regulation, but enabling these businesses to be successful.”
To Atticks, one of Maryland agriculture's defining features is its proximity to major cities. The state's farmers and value-added producers find plentiful customers in Baltimore and Washington, and some direct marketers range as far as Pittsburgh and Richmond. But with this close-by population comes intense development pressure.
The solution to that problem, Atticks argues, is to capitalize on the ready customer base and find ways to grow farms’ revenue.
“If we have incredibly profitable farms, then they stand up to the pressures of development. They stand up to the requirements that will force them to adapt to environmental concerns,” Atticks said.
Looming among those environmental concerns is the 2025 deadline for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, which will arrive during Atticks' term in office.
Atticks said he’s eager to provide farmer education and consider program adjustments that will help producers adopt conservation practices and, crucially, stay in business.
“You know what’s worse for the bay (than farming) is more development,” he said.
Another external challenge is avian influenza, which infected five chicken farms in Cecil, Queen Anne’s and Washington counties last year.
Readiness for the disease is already a top priority at the Ag Department, Atticks said. He received two briefings on the disease on his second day as acting secretary.
"I really hope we don't have to deal with it, but I know that we need to be prepared to at any moment," he said.
While Atticks intends to address needs that farmers raise, he may not always do so in the ways they initially propose. Sometimes in his work with value-added producers, he said, he’s helped the industry evolve its positions to harmonize with larger concerns.
As ag secretary he could do that on the subject of greenhouse gas reductions, which the governor wants to be a part of every agency and program. Atticks said farmers are already helping to mitigate climate change, but they may have opportunities to do more.
“We need to make sure that ag is at the table to have those discussions, and that we find solutions that work for everybody but are aimed at that greater good,” he said.