Bartenfelder journey leading to cabinet seat

Managing Editor

PRESTON, Md. (Jan. 13, 2015) — At age 21, Joe Bartenfelder was heading home after a trip to Ocean City and with what money he had left over, stopped in Annapolis to pay the filing fee and become a candidate for his Baltimore County district in the House of Delegates.
When he got back to his family’s farm in Fullerton, he met his parents working in the strawberry field and told them what he’d done.
“They said, ‘What are you, crazy?’” Bartenfelder said during lunch last week.
That question may have crossed the minds of some after hearing he had been nominated to be the next Maryland Secretary of Agriculture, a job recently wrought with tension, pitted between farmers and environmental groups over proposed phosphorus regulations.
But Bartenfelder, who lost that first House of Delegates race but won the next round at age 24 and held the seat for 12 years until deciding to pursue a seat on the Baltimore County Council, said the state agriculture department needs to be thought of as  a place where farmers can rely on for help in their operations.
“When you get contacted now by MDA, it’s almost a fear factor,” he said. “I want to change that whole image.”
A big part of that change, Bartenfelder said, will be in refashioning the proposed implementation of the Phosphorus Management Tool to allow for more research and ease the burden of farmers, a pledge Gov. Elect Larry Hogan made after his election.
“My agenda is to try and make life easier for the agriculture community in Maryland and be a voice for farmers in the state,” he said.
Talking with state legislators — old and new — about ag’s progress and that the industry is “handling our problems” will be another item topping his list, he said.
“We’re all trying for the same goal. Farmers don’t want to pollute the Bay any more than anyone else,” Bartenfelder said. “But you’re not going to correct it in 30 or 40 days. Everything takes time.”
While he said it’s premature to think about specific policies or other departmental changes, he began last week a series of meetings with agricultural organizations and other groups seeking input and building relationships.
Bartenfelder’s family began farming in Baltimore County in the 1840s, growing produce for the city markets in Baltimore and tomatoes for a nearby cannery.
Over the years, they’ve remained in produce, selling at retail and wholesale markets but moved most of the operation to Caroline County on the Eastern Shore in the late 1990s.
They still have two greenhouses at the old farm used for growing transplants but pressure from development and deer made it “impossible” to grow vegetables profitably there, he said.
In 2011, they built a new on-farm market on their Preston farm and last year diversified into poultry, buying a farm with two chicken houses and contract growing for Mountaire Farms.
For Bartenfelder, who’s managed the farm since 1978 and worked on it since he was a child, expanding the operation makes it possible for three of his children, Joe Jr., Jessie and Jamie to maintain a role on the farm.
“What I had going would be plenty for me, but three of my four kids want to be involved in some way,” he said. “You’ve got to look at other ways to be able to have them stay on the farm.”
While the foray into chicken farming builds on the experience of his son-in-law Mark Harding, it also signals a measure of confidence that the poultry industry on Delmarva will remain viable.
“It means too much,” Bartenfelder said said of the peninsula’s broiler industry. “It’s going to be here and it’s got to be here.”
Before running for public office, as a boy he worked on the campaign of his cousin Harry Bartenfelder who sat on the Baltimore County Council, an experience he said that influenced him to enter politics and keep at it.
“You’re in a position to help people when they come to you,” Joe said of holding public office.
Though he lost, his first race was close and “I just decided I was going to stay involved. People didn’t lose sight of me and the next time around they were supportive.”
As a delegate and county councilman, it wasn’t uncommon for constituents to stop along a field he was working in and wait for him reach the turn row to discuss and issue and conversations with customers at Baltimore farmers’ markets frequently turned to politics and government.
Should Bartenfelder’s secretary nomination be approved, he expects the demands of the job to keep him away from the farm quite a bit but also sees that as opportunity to transition more of the farm duties to his children but still not be too far away for guidance if needed.
He’ll be giving up a lot of what he calls “sanity time,” working in the field and hauling product to market.
But too many times, he said he’s seen farm operators die or become unable to farm with the next generation being not prepared enough to take over.