—- By: Ann Costantino —-
Baltimore County has invested almost half a million dollars in what County Executive Kevin Kamenetz calls the “Produce for the People” program — a green bean, corn and potato greenhouse project announced in October which is intended to feed Baltimore County’s homeless and hungry.
The announcement of the program came seventeen days after Kamenetz announced a run for governor.
During a presentation to the County’s Planning Board last week, the county executive presented his Capital Improvement Plan and was asked to explain spending on a greenhouse planned for Cockeysville’s 149 acre Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park.
“The farming operation that we are going to start actually we think is consistent with the vocational nature of the facility,” Kamenetz said at the meeting. “And we will actually be able to show people literally how things are grown,” he said. “Importantly, all of the proceeds of that growth, that farming, are going to be donated to shelters in Baltimore County. So, we are growing food to give to people who don’t have enough food to eat. I happen to think that that is a proper use of county tax dollars.”
But area farmers and agriculture experts believe the County has already spent too much on a program that even a member of the County’s planning board – who is also a farmer – says will amount to some pretty expensive potatoes.
“This figure is more than I spend on equipment to farm 2,000 acres,” said Board Member Wayne McGinnis at last week’s planning board meeting. “Why don’t they go down there to wholesale food places and buy the stuff a lot cheaper…?” he asked Kamenetz. “It is coming from the taxpayers and the capital expenditure, which is completely outrageous in my opinion,” McGinnis continued.
Also known as the “Ag Center” or “Farm Park,” the Center’s mission since its inception has been to “utilize the property as a living classroom” and “provide the general public unfettered access to agriculture, innovative agricultural methodologies and to inspire a new generation of farmers.”
In October, the County broke ground on the 48’ x 96’, $225,000 greenhouse which it says will “support the production of an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of fresh produce a year that will be provided to local food banks, homeless shelters and school cafeterias.”
The same month, the County requested $245,000 for various farm-related equipment. But other costs have not yet been considered, such as paid contractors, additional County employees, seeds, utilities and on-going gardening supplies.
The program would make use of approximately 50 acres of land used to grow transplants from seedlings grown in the greenhouse for crops like green beans, sweet corn, potatoes, cabbage, peppers and tomatoes.
According to a County press release, Produce for the People will be conducted with assistance from the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council, Inc. (MARC), the nonprofit arm of the facility responsible for developing the Center’s programs and projects. The program would follow another expensive County purchase of a structure that has been sitting almost vacant at the Ag Center since last spring.
As a result, some of the volunteers who oversee and work on the Ag Center’s programs are concerned about the County’s spending on Produce for the People. They fear that the County lacks a broad understanding about farming and agriculture.
“It’s unfortunate that the County doesn’t consult the various park councils to determine what projects would be most beneficial to the community or our parks, said Keith Rosenstiel, a volunteer for the MARC.
“The councils consist of very committed members of our community who dedicate a lot of their time for a cause that they are passionate about, and they are the experts where the county is not. Who better to determine spending priorities?” he said. “The MARC does so much with so little, and the County does so little with so much.”
Rosenstiel, who has volunteered for the MARC for about one year, was instrumental in stopping the 7,950-square-foot maintenance facility, known by community members as the “Truck Depot,” that was planned for Ag Center grounds. The County canceled its plans in February due to significant community push-back, as reported by The Baltimore Sun.
Yet tensions between County employees and volunteers continued to rise after what was seen to be a victory for community members. But just as soon as the drama from the “Truck Depot” dissipated, new Ag Center projects seemed to emerge.
While walking his dogs before sunrise last month, Rosenstiel stumbled upon contractors drilling on Ag Center grounds. He recognized they were performing a soil boring test, a process which collects soil samples from below the ground’s surface in preparation for projects, such as new construction. He said he approached the workers to ask why they were conducting the test at 5:30am – in the dark. The workers didn’t say.
Rosenstiel immediately filed a Maryland Public Information Act request with the County. The boring test, which cost the County approximately $20,000, was for a proposed modular building (cost unknown) and $222,203 for the building’s site preparation. It is unclear if the County plans to move forward with the project.
However, this and other projects — such as the greenhouse — have in some form been on the Center’s Master Plan since 2008. For instance, in addition to the modular building, the Master Plan also includes a pair of 30’x48’ metal and acrylic greenhouses that would serve as laboratories to support educational programs.
Communication, implementation, and different ideas about the intended purpose for the Ag Center, according to MARC volunteers, is what is in dispute. The plans for the structures in some form, however, have been a part of the County’s Master Plan from the outset.
Dan Colhoun, a founding member of the council responsible for the Ag Center and its mission, provided a statement to The Baltimore Post, “As one of the initiators of the MARC, our goal was to combine government agencies involved in production agriculture and exhibit production agriculture to the public.” The military veteran and longtime farmer said, “Essentially we wanted to replicate a Baltimore County Farm for the public to see and explore.”
In early 2003, Colhoun and other area farmers, sought to consolidate Baltimore County’s agricultural and natural resource service providers in one location with the intention of enhancing the industry.
By 2004, an advisory council made up of farmers and agricultural leaders identified land it wished to purchase for its Ag Center vision.
In 2005, previous Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and County Administrator Fred Homan expressed interest in purchasing the property as a way to preserve the agricultural land and promote agriculture in Baltimore County.
Although it was a process started by farmers on the verge of purchasing the property themselves, the County stepped in while initially sharing the farmers’ vision for an agricultural center.
In 2007, the County purchased the 149 acres from the Tillman family for $3,850,000. The purchase was then subsidized with the assistance of the National Park Services’ Land and Water Conservation Fund and the State of Maryland’s Program Open Space program which provided over $1 million and $2.1 million, respectively. In all, the County’s contribution for the 149 acres of land was roughly $750,000.
With the County as a land owner, the founding farmers became MARC, the nonprofit arm of the facility responsible for developing the programs and projects.
In 2010, the Ag Center opened to the public, but MARC volunteers and County employees found themselves at odds on farming operations as well as the vision for the Ag Center.
According to MARC volunteers, the Ag Center has been a place for demonstrating best farming practices for the community. Farmers of the Ag Center accomplish this by experimentation on small scales and through a variety of different gardens and crops.
In preparation for this season, for instance, the Center planted daikon radishes, rye and clover to keep the soil aerated and rich with minerals over the winter and in preparation for spring planting.
A farmer for the Ag Center said that radishes provide aeration and create holes in the soil; the crimson clover adds nitrogen; and the rye is a soil stabilizer since it has large root systems.
At the end of the season, the volunteer farmers will not only know the results of the experiment of planting the three crops together, but will also have the crops to harvest if successful.
Volunteers told The Post that they fear the County is not taking a similar exploratory or scientific approach when implementing its projects. Instead, they see officials spending millions of taxpayer dollars without considering long-term implications or the projects’ sustainability.
At the planning meeting last week, Kamenetz told the Board that the County is working closely with Rick Bernstein, the head of Hereford-based First Fruit Farms, which has been providing, through volunteer labor, fresh produce to individuals and families since 1998. Bernstein is also president of the MARC.
Kamenetz told the County’s Planning Board that Bernstein is “helping us spearhead this project.”
However, a spokesman for the MARC, newly appointed Board Chairman Tom Whedbee, told The Post “First of all, no one—especially those associated with the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council—is opposed to helping feed people in need. We do, though, oppose the County’s Produce for the People plan as it was presented to us for a number of reasons,” Whedbee said.
While the County is relying on MARC volunteers to help with the program, members of the council told The Baltimore Post that the County has not consulted the organization on the plans.
The concern is that taxpayer money is being used on a noble idea, but one that the County may lack the capacity to sustain.
The concern might not be unwarranted.
Two recent examples of other well-intentioned programs have stalled or fallen apart.
One is the 2015 Poultry for the People program which lasted one year, and, like Produce for the People, had every intention of supplying food for shelters.
The now defunct poultry program worked under a buy-one gift-one model. Fresh, organic chickens raised on the farm would be sold for food. For each chicken purchased, a second one was donated to the Baltimore County Homeless Shelter System. Any funds raised purportedly were to go to shelters and area schools. It is unclear why the program ended.
Then there is the $2.5 million equine center built at the Ag Center last year. Reporter, Mike Ruby, from the County Chronicle and The Villager reported extensively on the project, stating in an October Villager article, “Critics of the project say the Kamenetz administration intentionally avoided the standard approval process to prevent any citizen reviews, comments or criticism.”
The result, say MARC volunteers, was the facility the County built was ill-conceived, too small and a danger to the horses.
The facility was purportedly built too close to a stormwater management system. According to three equine veterinarians, the combination of moisture in close proximity to the equine center, and the pooling of water captured from runoff in the nearby system, is a health concern for horses. For one, mosquitoes carrying diseases thrive is those conditions.
Experienced volunteers say they saw the potential problems before the structure was built, but told The Post their warnings were ignored.
George Mayo, the MARC’s immediate-past president, was critical of the process that led to the equine facility project. Mayo told Ruby in a November Villager article that the County was “concerned about getting it done, than getting it done right.”
In the article, Ruby reported that there have been only two events in the $2.5 million taxpayer funded facility since it opened earlier this spring. The long-term plans for its intended use are still unclear.
Originally, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association considered partnering with the Ag Center to provide equine-related services and would have made use of such a structure. When that fell through, a New York based equine therapy organization, Saratoga WarHorse, was purportedly to partner with the Center. The organization specializes in therapies for veterans and those with emotional and head trauma.
Yet Brian Spearman, Chairman of the Board for Saratoga WarHorse, told the The Post yesterday, “We have no official announcement to make at this time.” He said, “I can say we are exploring the opportunity to have Saratoga WarHorse come to Baltimore, and hope to have an answer in the not too distant future. Stay tuned!”
However, an area activist group sees the timing of this and the greenhouse project as suspect.
“It’s so unfortunate that the County feels a need to spend exorbitant amounts of our money on political photo-ops that end in failure,” a group called The Greencroft Neighbors said in a Facebook posting earlier this week.
“Remember that the $2.5 million Therapeutic Riding Center sits empty nearly a year after completion and has still never seen a single horse or wounded vet, but Kamenetz got his photo-op, so it no longer seems to matter,” the group said in the “Save Shawan” Facebook Group. “We feel that our parks are being used for personal and political playgrounds at our expense. When will this stop?”
[Kamenetz, who announced his run for governor in September, broke ground on the Produce for the People program less than two and a half weeks later while posing for pictures with other County officials.]
The Greencroft group continued, “Keep in mind that the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) has been growing food there (the Ag Center) for the past decade with donated equipment, seed and fertilizer using a volunteer workforce at no cost to County taxpayers. But the County is now pushing out the MARC and replacing them with paid employees and subcontractors,” a representative of the group said.
State Delegate Chris West who represents District 42B, which includes the Ag Center, said in a press release that he has concerns about this project. “First, there has not been any opportunity for community input. As we have found out in the past, the county has a pattern of pushing certain issues or starting certain projects without proper community input. This has to stop,” West said.
Councilman Wade Kach, who represents District Three which also includes the Ag Center, told The Post that he is concerned about the Administration’s attitude regarding the Center. Kach said the County’s stance has been, “we are in control and we can and will do what we want.”
Kach continued, “The MARC Board has been a vital participant in the operation of the Ag Center. The make-up of the membership of the Board makes them uniquely qualified for such a role.” He said, “Disputes between the Board and Administration are escalating. It is so important that the Administration and the MARC Board reestablish a close relationship. This will benefit the citizens of Baltimore County.”
Kamenetz, County officials and other lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment; however, the County’s own website acknowledges, “Volunteers have helped make the Agricultural Center a reality.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Mr. Dan Calhoun III. The person quoted is actually Mr. Dan Colhoun, and not the III. We regret this error and have corrected it.