When Gov. Larry Hogan took office in 2015, he promised Maryland’s agricultural community a seat at the table – and he has kept that promise. The governor has been a steadfast ally of our rural communities, and we are seeing a renewed sense of optimism among our farmers for the first time in years.
Recently, there has been some unfortunate misinformation spread about the Maryland Farms and Families Act that has sought to call into question the Hogan administration’s commitment to Maryland’s farming community. As secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a lifelong farmer, I can affirm that our administration is 100 percent committed to this vital community, and would like to clarify some misconceptions about this program.
Feeding Maryland’s hungry and supporting our farmers are certainly two worthy causes that any Marylander would support. The Farms and Families Act was passed by the General Assembly during the 2017 legislative session, creating a program that would match every dollar of federal nutrition benefits spent at farmers markets. While this is an innovative concept on its face, there are a number of factors that must be considered before state funding is allocated to the program.
Currently, the Maryland Department of Agriculture already has federal funding and resources dedicated to programs that help low-income families buy fresh food at farmers markets, including the Women, Infants and Children program. Last year, WIC recipients used just 43 percent of the 130,000 checks issued by the program. It is our responsibility to make sure we are using all available funds before we dedicate additional funds to a supplemental, and potentially duplicative, program.
Additionally, we must ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and in a manner that will do the most good for the greatest number of Marylanders. The Maryland Farmers Market Association has asked for $500,000 to fund the Farms and Families Act – 30 percent of which would go to salaries and administrative overhead. This is a significant amount of taxpayer money that would not go directly to farmers or needy citizens, particularly given this program duplicates existing programs and that the funds available through these programs are not being fully utilized.
Another mischaracterization is that the decision not to fund this program harms Maryland farmers. This again fails to acknowledge existing, duplicative programs. Last year, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program paid nearly half a million dollars to farmers who provided food to low-income families.
Gov. Hogan has provided historic support for our farm families in his current budget proposal. The governor’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget includes $6 million for the Rural Maryland Prosperity Investment Fund, which funds the Rural Maryland Council. This year’s funding is double the amount of last year, and would make Gov. Hogan the first governor in Maryland history to fully fund this critical program.
The Rural Maryland Council embraces holistic solutions for rural issues and strives to help communities grow by bringing together stakeholders from agriculture and natural resource-based industries, health care facilities, educational institutions and government agencies. This includes numerous initiatives that help farmers and low-income families.
Gov. Hogan also has included $8.5 million in his budget proposal for the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share program, which provides grants to farmers for installing best management practices on their farms to prevent soil erosion, manage nutrients and safeguard water quality in streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. This an increase of $500,000 for a program that has helped our farmers stay viable while protecting our natural resources.
While the Maryland Farms and Families Act was passed with good intentions, we need to find a better way to fully utilize funding that already exists for programs that accomplish the same goal. Maximizing available resources is ultimately in the best interest of our farmers, our needy families and our taxpayers.
I am very proud of the work this administration has done to protect and promote Maryland agriculture, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture welcomes the opportunity to work together with all stakeholders to achieve our shared goal of providing locally grown, nutritious food for all Marylanders.
Joseph Bartenfelder is secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.