Maryland may be known for Baltimore and blue crabs, but agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry. More than 12,400 farms and nearly 21,300 producers operate in the state, contributing to a $20.9 billion food, feed, fiber and equine industry that supports more than 105,000 jobs.
Called Little America and America in Miniature by some, the eighth smallest state features a full range of the nation’s diverse landscapes: beaches, bays, rivers, rolling hills, mountains, forests and fertile farmland. And just like its geography, Maryland’s agriculture is diverse. Maryland ranks 10th in the U.S. for commercial broiler production, with nearly 269 million birds. The state also has robust grain, greenhouse/nursery, dairy, livestock and vegetable industries.
Mac Middleton is a Southern Maryland farmer who has seen and participated in Maryland’s agricultural diversification first-hand. His family’s heritage on the land dates back to 1661, and tobacco was their primary crop much of that time. In the early 2000s, he transitioned to agritourism enterprises, with u-pick pumpkins and strawberries and other opportunities for an increasingly urban population to engage in agriculture. Today, he runs a cow-calf herd and makes orchardgrass hay for his region’s booming equine industry.
Middleton became board president for the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology in late 2019. The Hughes Center, in the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, provides leadership to promote environmentally sound and economically viable agriculture and forestry as Maryland’s preferred land use through research, outreach and collaboration. It soon became clear that the Hughes Center needed to address climate change.
“I felt strongly that we can’t wait another minute,” Middleton says. “We’ve got to take climate change seriously and start assessing and planning for the challenges that agriculture in the state of Maryland is going to be facing as well as for the opportunities that may be out there.”
Maryland Farmers See Climate Change
In 2021, at the request of the Maryland legislature, the Hughes Center along with the state Department of Agriculture, Department of the Environment, and Department of Natural Resources set out to better understand the current state of Maryland agriculture and the issues it faces related to climate change.
Scientists expect Maryland’s climate to become warmer and wetter, conditions which Middleton confirms are already occurring on his farm. While he used to expect drought every two or three years, he hasn’t seen significant drought conditions in about 10 years. He has, however, seen more rain. Up until three years ago, he had never experienced flood waters covering his lower fields. Storms, including hurricanes, seem to be more severe.
Most of the time, Middleton has welcomed the extra rain to grow more, high quality forage and hay. The changing climate may also create new opportunities for Maryland farmers to tap into markets for crops, like grapes and grains, traditionally dominated by other states. However, he recognizes the extra rain is not ideal for all Maryland farmers. Warmer winters are also creating increased insect pressure, which especially affects fruit and vegetable production.
Surveys and conversations with farmers and technical service providers echoed that Maryland producers are already experiencing impacts from climate change. In addition to new, extensive rainy periods and increased pest and wildlife pressures, agricultural land is being lost to development and saltwater intrusion. Farmers aren’t sure how to invest in costly equipment and infrastructure to address climate change when margins are already tight.
Those surveyed expressed concerns that conditions may change quickly and that Maryland’s agriculture community must be prepared to adapt. They need new tools to add to current ones and practical research to help fill gaps in knowledge.
A Farmers-First Assessment
The Hughes Center, with support from the Maryland legislature, is now building on this initial investigation with a more in-depth, collaborative assessment of Maryland farmers’ needs for the future through the Maryland Climate-Smart Ag Project.
The Maryland Climate-Smart Ag Project will bring together voices from agriculture—farmers from all ag segments, technical service providers, state and federal agencies, agriculture and environmental organizations, policymakers, university and private research teams—to find ways to help farmers, ranchers and foresters adapt to a changing climate.
Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, is helping facilitate this work in his joint role as vice president of the Hughes Center and co-chair of the Project Leadership Team that is guiding the project.
“We applaud the Hughes Center and Maryland lawmakers for recognizing and acting on the need to include farmers, ranchers and foresters early on in the process of considering climate change’s potential impacts on the state’s economy and food security,” Shea says.
“The whole purpose is to gather information from both researchers and the farming community,” Middleton says. “It’s got to be done right at the forefront of this entire undertaking—with the farming community. We don’t want this to be another comprehensive study that lies on the shelf because of a lack of farmer input.”
The Maryland Climate-Smart Ag Project seeks to hear and learn from producers’ personal experiences, questions, ideas and opinions. Input from the farmers and agriculture partners, as well as additional research findings, will serve as the foundation for the project team’s final report for the Maryland legislature in 2024.
This report will include:
- Science-based information on how a changing climate will likely affect the state’s production of crops, livestock, and forestry, including weed, insect, pest and disease pressure and soil health, in the next 20 to 30 years.
- A review of current research, policy and programs addressing the impacts of climate change on Maryland’s agricultural industries.
- Recommendations to enhance policies and procedures relevant to climate change adaptation and mitigation.
- Recommendations on future research.
“This is exciting as this assessment will lead to the development of effective policies and approaches to address climate change,” says Puneet Srivastava, Ph.D., co-chair of the Project Leadership Team and associate dean for research and associate director of the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station. “Using the specific recommendations presented by this assessment, we will implement climate-smart best management practices to inform and educate farmers and other stakeholders, and society in general.”
Beyond the report, the Maryland Climate-Smart Ag Project will establish networks of experts who can continue exploring observed and projected climate impacts to agriculture and of farmers and technical advisers who can provide real-world perspective.
Join the Conversation
If you or a farmer/agriculture partner you know in Maryland would like to join the conversation, email Terry Nuwer, project coordinator, at email@example.com. Learn more by going to go.umd.edu/MdClimateSmartAg.