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Tough times for So. Md. ag (Editorial)

by | Jan 22, 2021

It’s 2021, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Look no farther than agriculture in Southern Maryland.

Changes in the industry over the last several months tell an unfortunate but familiar story, one of consolidation and efficiency. Earlier this month, Perdue Agribusiness notified its Southern Maryland producers that it will stop accepting grain at its Anne Arundel County elevator next month and shutter for good — after roughly four decades of service — in late March. Two weeks later, after a story about the closure appeared in the Delmarva Farmer, Perdue added that the elevator is for sale, and the company is working with the state to prevent the facility from closing.

“The Lothian grain elevator is a critical part of Southern Maryland’s agriculture community and our department is committed to working with all parties to find a solution for our farmers,” Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said in a Perdue statement.

A solution, of course, would be appreciated. For Southern Maryland farmers, the announcement was the latest development in a frustrating trend. The state budget department said last month it is wrapping up its funding commitment to the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. The commission has been state-supported since the tobacco buyout in the 1990s with money from a multi-billion-dollar tobacco settlement. Over the next four years, SMADC faces the daunting task of figuring out how to otherwise support a $600,000 yearly budget.

The region’s once-mighty tobacco community took it on the chin two years ago when Philip Morris USA announced they were pulling out of Southern Maryland and wouldn’t be renewing yearly grower contracts just a few weeks before planting. Though some growers have signed with new buyers, their already-small numbers continue to dwindle, and Philip Morris’s departure may eventually prove to be the final nail in the commodity’s coffin in Maryland.

But Perdue’s reasons for selling the elevator are rooted in a more serious problem in suburban agriculture.

“Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, we have seen a significant reduction in Anne Arundel County farmland, including a 30-percent reduction in total harvested grain acres — a trend that no longer aligns with our long-term business strategy,” said Scott Fredericksen, Perdue Agribusiness president, in a statement.

We could argue for more county and state preservation programs, but they’re abundant, and suburban and exurban growth is unlikely to abate anytime soon. Maintaining or building agricultural infrastructure seems increasingly difficult in these conditions. SMADC’s rocky, decade-long (and still-uncertain) quest to build a meat processor and regional ag center in St. Mary’s County is painful proof of that. You could forgive some farmers’ ambivalence to these efforts.

Fortunately, farmers adapt. More of them are serving the region’s growing number of residents who happily pay a high premium for healthy, locally-grown agricultural products. Many experienced shocking windfalls last year when the coronavirus rudely disrupted global life. It’s a welcome bright spot in an industry that seems to get more challenging each year. We hope the state and Perdue can find a solution to prevent that job from getting any harder for Southern Maryland grain farmers.

We’re far from the region’s agricultural golden age, but here’s to hoping we don’t lose another piece of it.

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