By Amy G. Crone
Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder’s commentary regarding the Maryland Farms and Families Program raises some interesting points along with some sharp criticism for the program [“Guest Commentary: Supporting Maryland’s Farmers and Families,” Feb. 12, 2018]. Since he explicitly named our organization in his commentary, I’d like to take this opportunity to address his column directly and set the record straight on some key issues.
First and foremost, the Maryland Farmers Market Association appreciates the dedication to agriculture and the support for Maryland farmers that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s administration has displayed since coming to office. The intent of Maryland Farms and Families Program is to further bolster this support, but unfortunately it has become clear that the Maryland Department of Agriculture does not fully understand the program.
Furthermore, the agriculture department does not seem interested to improve their understanding, as we and other groups advocating for this program have had our requests to meet one-on-one with Secretary Bartenfelder ignored or denied.
Having spent five years implementing the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and Seniors when I worked at the Maryland Department of Agriculture as an agricultural marketing specialist, I have intimate knowledge of how the program works including its federal funding component and budgeting.
It is indeed the responsibility of the Maryland Department of Agriculture to spend all federal funds allocated for the FMNP programs — if such funds are not utilized they must be returned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the end of the program year. However, despite the redemption rate of 43 percent, the agriculture department spends 100 percent of federal funding each year by issuing a surplus of checks to account for the likelihood of low redemption rates. This fact renders inaccurate the secretary’s assertion that current funding for farmers market programs is not being fully utilized.
One of the aims of the Maryland Farms and Families Program is to increase Farmers Market Nutrition Program utilization across the state — by doubling the value of these checks, low-income families will be more likely to redeem the benefits at farmers markets. This will impact the Maryland Department of Agriculture program in two ways: nutrition program redemption rates will improve, thus rendering obsolete the current strategy of over-issuing checks; and if current levels of nutrition program issuance is an accurate assessment of need, then increased utilization will indicate the need for USDA to grant more federal funds to Maryland for nutrition programming.
All this means more benefits provided to Marylanders in need and more sales for Maryland’s farmers.
The Maryland Farmers Market Association wholeheartedly agrees that taxpayer dollars must be spent efficiently and in a manner that will do the most good for Marylanders. Secretary Bartenfelder is correct: the program currently includes a budget that allocates 30 percent to “salaries and administrative overhead.” Unfortunately, what is not included in his statement is that this 30 percent is actually an investment in markets themselves.
One of the greatest barriers to implementing a farmers market matching program is that it requires personnel to manage it: distributing the match to eligible customers on market day, tracking tokens spent with farmers and reimbursing the farmers accordingly, as well as tracking and reporting program data.
Small markets without adequate funding to support market staff often don’t have the capacity needed to implement the program, even though these markets would benefit just as much — if not more — than markets currently able to implement matching programs.
The idea behind the Maryland Farms and Families Program is to increase capacity across the state by setting aside the bulk of the 30 percent to provide markets with start-up funding to support paid staff who can implement a matching program. Yes, it is “salaries and administrative overhead,” but is also an investment in jobs and economic development in communities with farmers markets throughout Maryland. Furthermore this 70-30 split exactly mirrors the federal Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture is currently using 30 percent of its nutrition program funding for administration and overhead.
The Maryland Farms and Families Program does not duplicate existing programs — there is no program funded by the state to match federal benefits utilized at farmers markets. The intent of the Farms and Families Act, which was put forth by a lifelong farmer in the legislature, is to ensure that federal benefits are spent to support agricultural communities and help low-income Marylanders purchase more fresh food at farmers markets.
The Maryland Farmers Market Association was thrilled to see the Rural Maryland Prosperity Fund fully funded, and works closely with the Rural Maryland Council on a number of issues in support of our farmers. We also applaud the other agricultural programs funded through the governor’s budget and have worked with many groups in the agricultural community since our inception as a nonprofit in 2012.
Yet, the fact remains though that Gov. Hogan is missing an opportunity to bring the state together by supporting Maryland’s small farmers and increasing food access for low-income Marylanders by not funding the Farms and Families Program.
Other states around the country have invested in similar programs — including our neighbor Washington, D.C., which provides more than $400,000 each year through their budget to support farmers market programs. Any funding that the governor chooses to allocate will help. While $500,000 would fully fund such programs now, that total could be provided over the next several years as matching expands throughout the state’s almost 145 farmers markets.
Secretary Bartenfelder knows the advantages well — his family farm has benefitted from farmers market matching since the programs started and continues to receive such funding via farmers market outlets each season. We hope that he and Gov. Hogan will fund the Farms and Families Program so that all market farmers will be able to participate and benefit, which will simultaneously help to nourish more low-income Marylanders with fresh food.
The Farms and Families Program unites Maryland from the farm to those who are food insecure; this funding supports all citizens.
Amy G. Crone is the executive director of the Maryland Farmers Market Association.