May 12, 2015

Maryland and Food Self-Sufficiency

Greg Bowen

Greg Bowen

CLF Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Baltimore.LexingtonMarket

Lexington Market in Baltimore City. Library of Congress

This post first ran April 30, 2015, on Farm Views.

As recently as 70 years ago, Maryland was virtually food self-sufficient, with local farmers providing nearly all the food staples. Since then, modern agriculture practices, food business models, and improved transportation systems have reduced food prices and provided a much wider variety of fruits and vegetables and processed goods in supermarkets. Trade agreements allowed tariff free imports to lower prices and increase variety even more. For a number of reasons, Maryland farms (and East Coast farms in general) have not been able to compete in a number of food products and acres of those products decreased dramatically by the end of the 20th century.

However, in the last few decades a new trend has emerged. Alarmed about loss of farmland in their areas and wanting to know more about how their food is raised, a growing number of consumers began to seek out local food. Farmers markets, CSAs and food and drink festivals have piqued interest. In Maryland, a logical question is how many customers could Maryland farmers supply? Can we ever be food self-sufficient today?

New Report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable FutureA new study out of  the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future begins to answer that question by looking into what food is produced in Maryland and what its 6 million residents may be consuming. At the same time, it cautions that “this comparison is not meant to advocate that the entire state could or should feed its entire population based solely on what it grows within its own borders. Rather this can help create a stronger connection between the local and regional food movements, the foods we choose to buy and eat, and agriculture within the state and region.”

Some findings:

  • Maryland farmers produce more than enough chicken, lima beans, and watermelon to meet Maryland consumer demands.
  • Maryland farmers produce 67% of the spinach demand, 57% of the sweet corn demand, 46% of the egg demand, 28% of the milk demand and 26% of the beef demands.
  • Potatoes are the most popular vegetable and Maryland farmers meet 9% of that demand
  • Tomatoes are the 9th most popular food product on Maryland farms yet we produce only 2.14% of the population’s demand.
  • Maryland farmers produce about 2.8 billion pounds of corn for grain, a lot of which is used for livestock feed, seed, and industrial uses.

Of course, watermelons and lima beans are only produced for a few months and demand for these products (and other perishable products) is year around. In 1940, consumers’ diets were more attuned to the growing season. Now they expect strawberries in January. However, milk and meats are produced year around. Grains can be stored and many greens (and even tomatoes) can be grown year around in high tunnels or greenhouses. Their commercial viability depends price. Price is a factor, but 70% of U.S. residents say that they would pay at least 5% more for locally sourced food.

Maryland is not close to being food self-sufficient, nor will we ever be totally food self-sufficient as long as we are consuming a significant amount of food from tropical plants such as coffee, bananas, oranges, etc. Total food self-sufficiency was not the purpose of the Johns Hopkins report or this blog.

The point is that Maryland does grow an amazing amount of food and can grow more. There are challenges in rebuilding the quantity of food that grows well in this climate, including labor, regulations, aggregation and distribution of food to institutions, etc. but if residents in Maryland want more local food, let’s test their resolve. Maryland’s agriculture industry and our state economy will benefit from the effort!

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