ANNAPOLIS – Mark Way, 44, is a farmer – at least some of the time.
Every morning he awakens at 4:30; feeds and waters his brood of chickens, goats, rabbits, turkeys and cows; ensures their quarters are clean and well ventilated; and checks the progress of the newborns in the stock.
But by about 8, Way is at the Department of the Army performing research, joining the nearly 5,300 principal farm operators supplementing farm revenues with other jobs.
That nearly half of Maryland’s estimated 12,100 farms depend on external resources is an indication of the challenges facing this premier state industry – challenges state lawmakers recognize and are trying to overcome.
“It’s an awful struggle to make it on farms,” said Maryland Farm Bureau spokeswoman Valerie Connelly.
Though farming can be profitable, “people don’t think about farm insurance, medical insurance and other benefits that a farm salary can’t cover,” said Robin Way, who picks up the daily slack on the couple’s 62-acre Conowingo farm.
Farmers battle the whims of weather, disease, and market changes, but now they’re also plagued by limited credit access, shrinking farmland and an aging industry, according to state and national agriculture statistics.
Officials have always sought ways to bolster agriculture, which offers economic, environmental and social benefits to the state.
Agriculture rakes in $1.4 billion in revenues annually and has a net impact of $17.6 billion on the state’s economy, according to the Department of Agriculture.
In addition, farming preserves open space and “it’s where we get our food,” said department spokeswoman Sue duPont. “All the way around, keeping farming alive is a good thing.”
Lawmakers have also done their part, and this year they introduced several largely successful bills in the General Assembly addressing industry concerns.
“What really concerns me is that one day, we’re going to get up and there won’t be any small businesses, any farmers and any watermen,” said Delegate John Wood, D-Charles, a sponsor of an initiative designed to make farming more attractive to youth. “They’re the ones that put the clothes on our back.”
Maryland farmers compete within a global economy, which demands continual mechanical and technological upgrades. But farming does not provide significant opportunities for job creation or capital investment and financiers are wary of extending credit to farmers.
“The traditional economic development infrastructure is not meeting the needs of the agriculture community very well,” said Steve McHenry, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, an organization devoted to rural development.
The council spearheaded legislation establishing a public corporation to market agriculture and make capital and credit available to farmers at affordable interest rates.
“We hope to maintain the viability of agriculture,” McHenry said.
Pumping new, younger blood into the industry is part of maintaining its vitality.
Younger farmers are more willing to branch into horticulture, organically-grown produce, bed-and-breakfast inns and other niche enterprises, said Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, who operates a farm held by his family since the 1660s.
But the average age of Maryland farm operators increased over the past two decades to 56 years. Additionally, only 8 percent of all operators are 35 years and under, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Middleton and Wood’s bills would establish a Young Farmers Advisory Board to try to reverse this trend.
The board will devise means to attract and retain younger farmers discouraged by the economic unreliability of agriculture and will provide a forum for their ideas.
“Hopefully it will give young farmers a sense that someone is listening to them (and that) the state of Maryland cares about young farmers,” said Middleton.
Making agriculture economically attractive is hard enough, but the lure of development further thwarts such efforts.
As the state’s population booms, suburbia encroaches upon Maryland’s farmland, daily depriving agriculture of approximately one farm and 82 acres since 1980, according to NASS figures.
Sprawl breaks up “contiguous farmland,” which is necessary for optimizing the use of equipment in efficient mass production,” said James Conrad, executive director of Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.
Mixing residential or commercial land with farms has also increased nuisance suits against farmers and made moving farm machinery a time-consuming and dangerous task, Conrad said.
Since the foundation’s creation in 1977, it has preserved 400,000 acres of agricultural land and woodlands, making Maryland a leader in efforts to maintain green space, conserve wildlife and protect the ecology of state waterways.
Accompanying legislation empowered the state to buy development rights from farmers, but one clause gave participating farmers leeway to terminate the easement after 25 years.
Sen. Roy Dyson, D-Calvert, introduced bills this session making easements permanent and providing income tax credits to farmers involved in the program.
Failure to protect agriculture could make the United States an “importer” instead of a “net exporter,” said Dyson. “The long-term goal is to protect agricultural land” and the nation’s future.
Though these bills have moved swiftly through the Legislature and will likely pass, the task of saving agriculture ultimately belongs to farmers.
Between caring for livestock and making deliveries, Robin Way prepares and packages jellies, sauces, canned fruits and vegetables for sale. The couple also hosts dinners during colder months for tourists seeking a more rustic dining experience.
“We have to be a lot more than the old-time farmer, who goes out and sits on the tractor,” said Way. Farmers need to “look at agriculture with new eyes, (becoming) businessmen as well as good stewards of the land.”