—– By: Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong —–
The bucolic rolling hills of the 150-acre Baltimore County Agricultural Center in Hunt Valley has become a powder keg. Based on articles, online rants, and public hearings, the County has gone rogue. Against the public will and the public good, the County has been destroying the Farm Park by erecting greenhouses, refurbishing barns, fencing pastures, building arenas, buying tractors, educating the youth, helping heal veterans and growing food for hungry people.
There has been a lot of activity at the Ag Center. However, it is not part of a conspiracy to ruin the agricultural integrity of the Center. The County is simply fulfilling the Master Plan, published in 2008 and adopted by the County Council. A plan that was developed in partnership with the very same people now crying foul.
In the early 2000’s, a group of local agricultural professionals envisioned the creation of an agricultural center in Baltimore County. The center they envisioned would consolidate agricultural services, build the capacity of the area’s current and future farmers, showcase environmentally friendly farming practices, educate the general public about the importance of agriculture, and foster the next generation of agricultural professionals. So committed to the project, many in the group pledged to mortgage their own farms to purchase the land to house the center.
Instead, they convinced Baltimore County Government of the merits of the project. Under the leadership of Jim Smith, the County agreed that Baltimore’s agricultural history needed to be honored, its present appreciated and enhanced, and its future secured through the creation of an agricultural center.
In 2007, the County contracted with Beyer-Blinder-Bell to develop a Master Plan for what would become The Baltimore Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park. The plan was not hatched in a secret room under cover of darkness. Quite the contrary. Stakeholders from citizens, and homeowner associations, non-profit land preservation and environmental organizations, agricultural industry associations, government agencies, the University of Maryland, the county council and most importantly the farming community, led by those intrepid farmers whose idea the center was in the first place, were consulted.
Interviews with key people were conducted. Meetings were held regularly with the project management working group and the steering committee to brainstorm and then refine the plan. Public forums were held to solicit input. Updated and revised with contributions from all, the Master Plan was released in May of 2008.
Heralded as a model of participatory government, all of the players seemed not only content with the contents, but eager and excited to start implementation with the county spearheading the construction and the founding farmers, now organized into the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC), spearheading the education and outreach programming – the beating heart of the center.
Phase I of the master plan included taking down of unsafe structures combined with the construction of the new core office building and multi-purpose room which made its public debut, September of 2010. Over the next four years, the ag center campus continued to evolve as guided by the Master Plan. As items were completed, the center was able to offer more programs to more diverse sets of clients ranging in age from preschool to 100 years of age.
That process has only continued with one change, the rate of implementation. Over the past two years, that rate has increased significantly with the County investing in erecting greenhouses, building an indoor arena, and refurbishing barns and pastures.
While it may be shocking to some to see the improvements, they should come as no surprise as they have sat patiently in the Master Plan since 2008 (pg68). Features deemed to be important tools with which non-profits such as MARC or Saratoga Warhorse or institutes of learning such as UMD and BCPS or the county itself can utilize to fulfill the vision for the Ag Center through innovative programming.
For example, with those greenhouses, the County was able to ramp up its Produce for the People program which grows potatoes, green beans, and sweet corn to teach the general public about food production, then when harvested, are donated to the Maryland Food Bank to feed the over 100,000 food insecure residents of Baltimore County. That is the power of agriculture. That is our Ag Center at work.
Read the master plan, because these recent developments are but the tip of the corn stalk. There are so many exciting additions to the Ag Center lying in wait for the county or other non-profits like MARC to implement continuing its evolution a state-of-the-art agricultural education and development campus, like a farm museum, living history area, and equine/livestock vet center.
There are many things to criticize about Baltimore County, but its commitment of resources made under the leadership of three County Executives to showcase agriculture and land preservation at the Ag Center is not one of them. I for one believe that Baltimore County is living up to the commitment they made to those farmers, residents, and community leaders, who worked together to develop the Master Plan for the Ag Center over a decade ago, and hope the new administration cherishes that commitment and keeps moving forward with the plan.
– Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong, Lutherville-Timonium
Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong is the former program manager for the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC). She is an environmental educator, county foster-adoptive resource parent, a Baltimore County Public School parent and PTA Treasurer. Mitchell-Strong also recently ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in the County Council District 3 primary race. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.