Ag preservation dominates dinner
Farm bureau hosts annual legislative event
The Calvert County Farm Bureau shared agricultural concerns with state legislators and county commissioners at its annual dinner in Prince Frederick on Monday.
Farm Bureau President Jason Leavitt called the event an “organic town hall” giving farm bureau members the opportunity to bring new officials up to speed on the issues that are important to Calvert’s agricultural community.
“The elephant in the room is the [agricultural preservation] program,” Leavitt said. “That is absolutely a topic that needs to be addressed.”
Leavitt said he was disappointed with the former board of commissioners’ decision to defer any action on the Purchase and Retirement Program to the next board during a Dec. 4, 2018, work session intended to set PAR fund prices and put into motion the county’s purchase of transferable development rights
for the purpose of land preservation. The commissioners were on the cusp of doing away with the program before deciding to table the decision.
Leavitt said he made the mistake of watching the video online when he got home from the state’s farm bureau convention, and that he could not sleep until 3 a.m. “It’s not the easiest thing to deal with,” he said. “It’s a complicated issue. There are multiple moving parts and it takes so long for someone especially that’s not been really close to the program for a long time to get the history.”
The president said the information presented at the meeting was not accurate. “That gives us a chance as the farm bureau to go to work and be more engaged to have a better and more comprehensive dialogue with the county commissioners,” Leavitt said. He said they must start a new dialogue and make some positive changes or those who seek to put their properties in preservation will suffer.
“The [agricultural preservation] program in and of itself is not perfect. The ideology behind it is excellent. It brings together the ag community, the development community, and it provides houses for people.” Leavitt said some involved on both the civilian and regulatory sides have abused the program counter to its initial intent.
“We’re going to talk about land preservation — I guarantee it,” farmer, former state secretary of agriculture and newly installed Commissioner “Earl” Buddy Hance (R) said. “I have faith in the new board.”
“I think it is important for the new board to hear the history of how and why the programs were developed and what’s been in place, and I think more importantly how we move forward from here,” County Administrator Terry Shannon said. “It’s on the horizon.”
Farmer and former commissioner candidate Susie Hance-Wells asked that the county inform the farm bureau of any agricultural-related agenda items before the commissioners.
Department of Planning and Zoning Director Mark Willis fell on the sword for any “miscommunication” regarding the December meeting, noting that more was to be discussed.
Willis promised to have an “open door” for the farming community, a theme that was replicated many times, with humor, throughout the night as speakers bested one another by promising to have doors wide open, even two doors open, and finally Hance said he has “no doors” as barriers to communication with him. Sheriff Mike Evans (R) also said he is available to help 24/7.
Former Calvert County Planning Commission vice chair Michael Phipps suggested having an agricultural preservation “primer” for the planning commission because since his departure in late 2016, there has not been a member of the agricultural community on the planning board.
The Purchase and Retirement Fund “‘leaves our rural landscapes intact. It allows for rural economies, which create food, fiber and jobs. It leaves forests, meadows and marshes for wildlife. It provides stream buffers and lowers impervious surfaces, thus helping to protect waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, Patuxent River and local creeks,’” Huntingtown farmer Morris Suit said, reading excerpts from a Dec. 28 letter to the editor in The Calvert Recorder from Greg Bowen, who wears many hats in preservation and agricultural groups.
Suit also pointed out that Commissioners’ President Thomas “Tim” Hutchins (R) and Commissioner Mike Hart (R) were not in attendance, while applauding Hance, Commissioner Steve Weems (R) and Commissioners’ Vice President Kelly McConkey (R) for attending. Leavitt praised McConkey for being one of the first incoming commissioners to meet the farm bureau, and said Hutchins was ill that evening and could not attend.
Sen. Jack Bailey (R–Calvert, St. Mary’s) said his grandfather left his farms to his father and his family was able to get one farm in land preservation and is working on another.
“So, that is something that is near and dear to my heart and something that we are working with. I will try to be an ally” for the farming community, he said.
Other issues broached were the treatment of agricultural tax assessment and agricultural incentives if a farmer is unable to continually work the land in preservation. Del. Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R–Calvert, St. Mary’s) promised to look into the issue.
Former commissioner candidate Holly Budd asked about the future of hemp, the cannabis plant, and its production in the state in light of how the federal government looks at it under the new farm bill. Clark said Morgan State University will conduct a pilot program on the value of cultivating hemp, an initiative he supported in hopes it would be at MSU’s Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum location in St. Leonard.
“We had a couple of hemp bars in session in our committee meeting. It wasn’t too bad — it was pretty good stuff,” Clark smiled, drawing laughter.