Last week, the Maryland Department of Planning held the first Maryland Symposium on Planning and the Food System. It was about time.

In the last decade or so, many agricultural entrepreneurs seeking to start a new enterprise found planners to be an impediment to success. County comprehensive plans talked about land preservation, but most did not mention actions to help promote sustainable, diversified farming. Zoning regulations typically did not allow wineries, farm commercial kitchens, corn mazes, and other value-added land uses on farms. In short, plans and planners were slow to recognize and address the emerging interest in locally-sourced foods and in agri-tourism.

Some counties have been working to rectify the problem in the last few years, but more needs to be done throughout the state to streamline regulations, while still providing adequate health, safety and welfare protections. A zoning tutorial is available for new farm enterprises in Maryland.

Complaints were not only lodged at planners, but also with health departments whose regulations are not scaled to small farms, economic development offices which do not recognize agriculture as a business, and state officials who do not recognize and support direct-to-consumer and value-added operations.

That is why it was great to see a wide diversity of experts in the room: planners, health department representatives, health care professionals, economic development representatives, extension agents, and other agencies at Maryland’s first planning symposium on the food system.

After a tour of the new Baltimore County Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park, Secretary Hall greeted those in attendance and announced the completion of the Department’s newest Models and Guidelines entitled Planning for the Food System, which is a compendium of best planning practices for improving the local food system.

Then Rich Josephson ‘ignited’ the symposium by introducing five experts who gave  intense briefings from their field: Jim Hansen – Extension Economist & Associate Professor, University of MD, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics on the economics of Agriculture; Anne Palmer, Program Director, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for a Liveable Future on health issues and access to healthy foods; Holly Freishtat, Food Policy Director, Baltimore Office of Sustainability on food policy in an urban setting; Colby Ferguson, Agricultural Business Development Specialist with the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, on land use regulations and agriculture; and Anna Ricklin, Manager, Planning & Community Health Research Center of the American Planning Association on coordination of Planning, Health, and Agriculture.

This was followed by small group table discussions, and a delicious locally-sourced lunch with crab cakes and meatloaf catered by Dogwood Restaurant, Baltimore Maryland.

Spike Gjerde, of Woodberry Kitchens, describes how he provides locally sourced food for his restaurant

The afternoon included presentations by two Baltimore restaurateurs, Chef Pellegrino of Waterfront Kitchen, Baltimore, MD and Spike Gjerde – Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, MD. Both restauranteurs have been working with the farm community for years to bring as many locally sourced foods to the table as possible. Spike has even arranged to work with local farmers to have locally sourced cooking oil and flour. In the summer, his staff cans and freezes surplus foods for winter use.

Next up was Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, founder and CEO of Eco City Farms. Attendees

A tour of one of the Eco City Farms high tunnels with members of the Young Farmers Brigade

were amazed at the way that members and volunteers have turned a tiny plot of land with tennis courts into a year-round urban farm that composts food scraps and turns them into rich soil, that produces food for restaurants and a farmers market, and that provides training and classes for new farmers.

The last speaker was Christine Bergmark, Executive Director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC). Just over a decade ago, Southern Maryland tobacco farmers were faced with the end of their “money crop.” SMADC was formed to dispense the tobacco buyout funds and assist farmers in transitioning to new crops. This experience provided valuable lessons for planning and implementing local food system strategies. It involved dealing with planning and zoning issues, health regulation, and marketing and agri-tourism issues, all of which are needed to build a local food system.

After the speakers answered questions, Department of Planning staff promised to post the information on their Maryland Planning Directors’ Roundtable page and to follow up on the suggestions at the meeting.