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Ag program looking for some love (Editorial)

by | Feb 16, 2018

(Feb. 20, 2018) Gov. Larry Hogan got an unusual Valentine last Wednesday. It was a big red heart with this appeal: “Show some heart, Gov. Hogan.”
It had a lot of signatures — 250 at a recent count but there was speculation it would reach 300.
The Valentine appeal was that the governor finally fund the Maryland Farms and Families Act and the folks who presented him with the Valentine would like to get $500,000. Supplemental budget hearings are underway. A hearing in the Senate was slated for Friday, Feb.16. The hearing in the House is scheduled for this Wednesday Feb. 21.
Here’s the background:
Last year, Maryland’s General Assembly unanimously passed the Farms and Families Act, a law that potentially is able to double farmers market purchases by customers using federal nutrition benefits like food stamps.
The act would establish the Maryland Farms and Families Fund administered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The fund would support the now privately-funded Maryland Market Money program, an initiative which matches purchases made with federal nutrition benefits at participating Maryland farmers’ markets.
But Gov. Hogan did not include funding for the program in his budget. That is a major subject of the ongoing hearings in Annapolis.
The MMM program, administered by the Maryland Farmers’ Market Association, is currently in place at 21 farmers’ markets in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.  According to the association, the MMM program has generated $1,148,150 for more than 400 farmers at participating markets since 2010.
The Farms and Families Act, as drafted, appropriated $500,000 each fiscal year, subject to the limitations of the state budget. Supporters of the legislation have let it be known that while getting $500,000 would be ideal, any support from the state would go a long way to lift up the program, especially in rural markets, and would be most appreciated.
The governor failed to fund the program is his proposed budget because the Maryland Department of Agriculture didn’t request support for the program.
A response from MDA noted that “this program very closely mirrors existing initiatives, including the Women, Infants and Children program which was not fully utilized last year.
“Of the 130,000 checks distributed by the program,” MDA pointed out, “only 43 percent were used by WIC recipients.
“Our priority is to make sure we utilize all existing funds and resources allocated for these programs before we dedicate taxpayer dollars to another, very similar, program.”
There might be room for some negotiation here. Two entities with the mission of supporting and expanding direct marketing channels for farmers shouldn’t be at odds about how to do it. With the federal WIC program linked to the Market Money initiative, surely there’s a way to build, and not duplicate on the common ground they share.
It would help the farmers growing for the markets and the low-income families looking for fresh, locally-grown food.
In our food conscious culture, farmers’ markets are becoming more and more popular and more and more conspicuous. It’s a burgeoning segment of the Maryland agriculture industry.
In 2015, MDA and the Maryland Farmers’ Market Association partnered, ironically, on a survey of markets in the state and estimated that local farmers markets generated $51 million in sales, with more than 2.3 million customers.
There is room — and reason — to get this done.

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