Panel talks about ag policy at the state level

AFP Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Jan. 31, 2017) — When this panel convened to discuss state-level agricultural policies in the Chesapeake Bay region, President Donald Trump had yet to nominate a secretary of agriculture. It was the second day of a conference hosted by Future Harvest, Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, at the College Park Marriott Conference Center in mid-January, and federal policies were still largely up for speculation.
Moderator Marc Steiner, who aired the discussion on the radio as part of the Baltimore-based Marc Steiner Show, said the decision-making impetus would likely fall to state houses in the coming months, especially as they opened for the season to grapple with issues that hit close to home.
This wouldn’t be the first year that many of the states in the bay region faced budget shortfalls, either.
A few of the panelists took the opportunity to share some of the success they viewed as hard-fought for the agricultural community — won despite funding limitations.
Ed Kee, then-Delaware Secretary of Agriculture, said his state adopted a loan program for young farmers that helped 28 of them secure 2,800 acres for food production.
As part of the loan agreement, the state enrolled those farms into permanent farmland preservation programs that would keep the land protected from development.
“That’s a way the state has coped with diminishing resources,” Kee said. “This is something that starts to invest in the human resource. It’s an example of a state program that steps into the gap.”
Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, said her organization is still working to convince state legislators that farming is a career carried out in the public interest and worthy of their investment.
As farmers in the state near an average age of more than 61, Moss would like to see more programs focused on educating young farmers and providing them access to usable farmland.
“In West Virginia, there’s a sentiment that farming is private business that should not work with the public sector, and my coalition disagrees with that,” Moss said. “Somebody has to step up and help folks new to farming jump these hurdles — and there needs to be investment from the state.”
The panel also heard from the audience about issues that local farmers would like to see state legislators address.
Mike Shay from Red Top Farm in Anne Arundel County, Md., said the changes he’d like to see are practical ones that would affect his farm’s every day operations.
He’d like to see the county or state allow him to sell more goods from the farm, which would foster interaction with the public that has moved into the surrounding areas.
“Our public is willing to pay more to have a farm experience,” he said.
He also mentioned having to pay retail taxes on the 13-acre farm, because it doesn’t fall under agricultural preservation.
Eric Bendfeldt, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, shared from the panel that his state has seen more success on these issues when state and county lawmakers view farms as independently-owned businesses.
Moss added to the sentiment, saying her organization works with regulators and legislators to help them see how much the many small farms add to the local economy.
“There is power in numbers,” she said.
When asked which agricultural issues they thought would be the most important in their states during this legislative session, Delaware’s Kee said minimum wage changes would be a big issue for farms of a certain scale that have employees.
The representatives from West Virginia and Virginia both predicted that the regulation of on-farm sales will be up for debate.