Prince George's County panel plans to promote local farming

By Zoe Tillman
The Gazette
Thursday, April 22, 2010

After a two-year hiatus, a Prince George's County agricultural group reconvened this month and vowed not to let controversial land-use issues consume its efforts as they once did.

The group's renewed focus will instead be on marketing local farms and locally grown products -- from eggplants and fresh-cut flowers to vineyards and livestock -- and supporting urban gardening initiatives.

"Farmers -- we're terrible at coming to a consensus and coming together and marketing," said Yates Clagett, co-chairman of the Agricultural Preservation Work Group and president of the Prince George's County Farm Bureau. He owns a 260-acre farm in Baden.

The County Council voted in February to reinstate the group, which is charged with making agricultural policy recommendations to the council and other agencies. It met April 14 at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

The task force plans to meet twice a month until November, when a new county executive is elected.

The group, whose members are selected by its co-chairs, is temporarily filling the roll of the county's Agricultural Resources Advisory Board, which is appointed by the county executive but has not met in recent years due to a lack of staffing.

The work group previously met from November 2006 through October 2008, when it presented its recommendations on land-use policies to the council. The legislation the group proposed, which had to do with limiting development in the county's rural southeastern tier, was never enacted.

Several members who served on the previous task force said they made a mistake in taking on the complex and controversial topic of how much development should be allowed in rural communities.

Largo Civic Association President Chuck Renninger, a past and present member of the group, said at the April 14 meeting that the land-use debate overwhelmed the task force, preventing it from addressing other issues.

Members now suggest the group embrace issues that are more likely to gain public and political support, such as promoting local farms and locally-grown produce. Cheverly resident Lisa Lincoln, a consultant and community activist, suggested a County Agriculture Day, an idea other members said they liked.

"We need to be promoting what we've got right here at every single turn," said Janna Howley, the group's co-chairwoman and an agriculture marketing specialist with the University of Maryland Extension office in Clinton.

Other suggestions included supporting urban gardens in denser communities, securing federal and state grants for local agricultural programs, and refining definitions in the county code of terms associated with agriculture, which members said are vague and confusing.

Councilwoman Marilyn Bland (D-Dist. 9) of Clinton, who co-sponsored the resolution calling for the group's reinstatement, said that she would like it to attempt to make local farmers markets easier for residents to find.

At least two topics came up that are likely to raise some controversy, Clagett said, if not to the same degree that land-use policies did two years ago.

The county's ongoing efforts to designate a Priority Preservation Area -- a swath of protected land, most likely within the southeastern rural tier -- might cause problems, he said. Although the creation of the area would give the county more access to state funds for preservation, land owners often are wary of special designations and their potential effect on property values, he said.

Clagett also said he expects the group to consider proposing that the county adopt a zoning designation for agricultural areas. Most county farms operate under the general residential zoning designation, but farmers are sometimes unclear whether their operations are included in that designation, he said.

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