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Opinion: Wes Moore’s six options for Maryland secretary of Agriculture

A view of rolling hills in rural Howard County. Stock.adobe.com photo by jonbilous.

By Harry Huntley

The writer is the Senior Agriculture Policy Analyst at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center where he develops easier, cheaper, faster ways for governments to pay farmers who improve water quality, and is a manager at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Baltimore. He holds degrees in economics and agricultural science from the University of Maryland, College Park and has worked for a variety of farms and agricultural organizations at the state and national level. He can be reached at [email protected]

Wes Moore’s foreseeable victory has allowed him and his team plenty of time to develop policy priorities, and his transition team’s Executive Policy Committees have already gotten to work on how to achieve goals that will fall under the Departments of the Environment, Commerce, Education, and more. But the incoming administration has done little to telegraph how it will manage the Department of Agriculture, and as Josh Kurtz recently noted in Maryland Matters, it’s hard to speculate directly on appointments.

Without public clues as to who the administration is considering to lead the department, all that’s available is to lay out what directions they might take and why. Below are six options for secretary of Agriculture the administration could consider in order from — in my opinion, without any insider information — most to least likely:

  1. The farmer-politician

The classic choice for Agriculture secretary is a farmer who’s also made a name for themself as a politician. Current Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder fit this mold as a former member of the House of Delegates and Baltimore County Council.

Pros: Some implicit trust with other farmers; policy, politicking, and probably managerial experience; an opportunity to repay political favors.

Cons: Sometimes considered not a “real” farmer if their income comes mostly from government service; Democrats don’t have a very deep bench in this category.

Examples: First county executive to endorse Moore and Dodon Farms co-owner Steuart Pittman (if he’d lost reelection); the last full-time farmer to serve in the state Senate, Mac Middleton; former state delegate, owner of Apotheosis Herb Farm, and Andy Harris challenger Heather Mizeur.

  1. The innovative large-scale farmer

Even without direct political experience, a well-connected farmer could step into the role of Agriculture secretary. In Moore’s case, he’d probably like to look for someone especially forward-thinking to provide a steady hand while looking for new opportunities for the industry.

Pros: Plenty of immediate connections to the agriculture community; direct knowledge of the industry; some willingness to take risks.

Cons: Inexperience with government and policymaking; potential for conflicts of interest; hard to pull someone away from a successful farm for the doldrums of a desk job.

Examples: CEO of the 13,000-acre Harborview Farms and regenerative farming advocate Trey Hill; organic produce pioneer and owner of One Straw Farm Joan Norman; owner of Ernst Grain & Livestock and member of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dean’s Global Leadership Council Steve Ernst.

  1. The urban farmer

As the Moore-Miller administration seeks to elevate underserved areas and look to the future of production, it may want to appoint an Agriculture secretary steeped in urban farming. Baltimore has taken a national lead in organizing urban farmers and offers plenty of options.

Pros: Brings a new perspective to the department; aligns with the Biden administration’s focus on urban agriculture; urban farms are physically closer to most people in the state.

Cons: Urban farming is very different from most farming in the state; loss of the Agriculture secretary to be the Cabinet’s spokesperson on other rural issues.

Examples: former operator of Five Seeds Farm and current co-Executive Director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore Denzel Mitchell, Founder and Executive Director of Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm and urban farming advocate Farmer Chippy.

  1. The rural Marylander

Wes Moore is clearly deeply committed to representation of all parts of the state. While rural areas are overrepresented in national politics and arguably were under the Hogan administration, Moore could balance his refocus on Baltimore — relative to the last administration — with a cabinet member dedicated to issues affecting rural Marylanders.

Pros: Could serve as the chief spokesperson on rural issues.

Cons: Could potentially lack of direct understanding of agriculture; unlike the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maryland’s administers relatively few rural development programs.

Examples: Chair of the Rural Maryland Council Charlotte Davis, Executive Director of the Maryland Rural Development Corporation Chris Benzing, Forever Maryland Program and Policy Director and Wicomico County Councilmember Josh Hastings.

  1. The agritourist

Agriculture in Maryland doesn’t just produce vegetables and grain; it produces experiences. Some exceptionally profitable farms in the state leverage their agriculture operations into agritourism like pick your own pumpkins, corn mazes, and wine tastings.

Pros: More connection to a wide-range of customers than many other kinds of farmers; a unique understanding of marketing; represents a growing industry.

Cons: Selling experiences is different from most farmers who sell commodities; typically have to be close-ish to major population centers, so these are mostly in central Maryland.

Examples: One of the Butlers of Butler’s Orchard, Robin Hill Farm & Vineyards co-owner and Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Corporation Director Shelby Watson-Hampton.

  1. The food systems reformer

Most Marylanders’ interactions with agriculture are through food, and Maryland — like the nation — is facing an epidemic of diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes that desperately needs to be addressed. No matter who leads the Department of Agriculture, they should work to holistically improve the food system, but appointing a food system reformer as the lead would send a dramatic message that food is the Department’s top priority.

Pros: Likely arrives with a policy background; there are more eaters in the state than farmers; Maryland could be a leader on combating diet-related disease.

Cons: Lack of understanding of agricultural production; advocacy from outside government can be a very different job than reform inside government.

Examples: Former Food Access and Nutrition Manager at the Baltimore City Health Department JaSina Wise, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Food Council and Maryland Food System Resiliency Council Chair Heather Bruskin.

Other options:

  • The farm service provider: One of the hundreds of Marylanders who work with farmers every day in positions like “Conservation Agronomist” or “Agriculture Marketing Professional.”
  • The academic: University of Maryland — originally the Maryland Agricultural College — has no shortage of agricultural talent, but academics aren’t always good politicians.
  • The policy wonk: Especially being near Washington, D.C., Maryland is home to plenty of folks who make their livings on understanding the technocratic details of agricultural policy.
  • The disrupter: Someone from outside the agriculture industry who would radically reshape the department’s mission, such as Moore Executive Policy Committee member and Beyond Meat Board Chair Seth Goldman.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correctly identify the vineyard co-owned by Shelby Watson-Hampton.