Our vision is to build a Maryland food system that is fair to farmers, invests in homegrown healthy foods, and protects our environment.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Our project team has a diverse array of lived experiences in Maryland. We are environmental advocates patrolling the state's iconic bays and streams to stop pollution at its source. We are former contract growers and community activists struggling with the economic, social, and public health threats from a failing food system. We are policy advocates shaping the debate about the future of Maryland for over a decade. Put simply, our relationship to Maryland touches on all aspects of the state's food system challenges and opportunities for change.
Waterkeepers Chesapeake (WKC) is at the heart of this team, pulling together our coalition of 17 local Waterkeepers and a network of hundreds of farmers and food system reform advocates. To strengthen our work, from research and analysis to community engagement and policy advocacy, we are partnering with Assateague Coastal Trust, the Center for Progressive Reform, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and the Environmental Integrity Project in a collaborative called "E3 - Engagement, Enforcement, and Empowerment for Change." Our team has strong connections with many of Maryland’s sustainable farmers, good food businesses, and non-profit organizations. We have been behind solutions that improve aspects of Maryland's food system, including the Sediment and Erosion Reporting Act, Foam Ban Bill, and Comprehensive Agriculture Reporting and Enforcement Bill.
Thanks in large part to the continued growth and focus on diversity in the Fair Farms’ Farmer Advisory Council, our project team has the proper channels to reach a greater number of local partners in underrepresented parts of Maryland. The Farmer Advisory Council provides this benefit by being the voice of visionary farmers in the communities that we need to transform our food system. Our participating farmers also leverage Fair Farms’ resources to guide and shape policies that will make it easier for other farmers to implement practices that support healthy food, land, and waterways.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Maryland is a state rich in history, culture, and tradition. It has been called “America in miniature” due to the variety of terrain and natural features you can find packed into its 10,460 square miles of land and water. Like it’s diverse landscape, the populations residing in Maryland include ethnic groups of every origin. Another similarity Maryland shares with the U.S. as a whole is its food system narrative, which has become both unsustainable and exploitative of consumers, farm workers, and visionary farmers.
While it is considered the wealthiest state in the nation, 1 in 10 households are food-insecure and these numbers are disproportionately stark for communities of color. A key consequence of food insecurity is obesity, which has contributed to growing rates of chronic disease in Maryland residents. The Maryland Department of Health cites chronic disease as the leading source of healthcare costs in the state. In addition, industrialization and vertical integration of our food system has decimated Maryland’s rural communities which are suffering from the highest unemployment in the state, as well as high poverty rates.
The three counties that make up the state’s Lower Eastern Shore exemplify the problems and promise of the food system. Production and slaughter of broilers provides direct or indirect employment for thousands of workers, but the jobs involve harsh conditions and provide modest income. The average age for farmers is creeping into the late 50s, raising questions about where the next generation of farmers will come from. A recent assessment of the Chesapeake Bay area found that 9,000 farmers are expected to retire in the next fifteen years, with just one-third of that number entering the field. Diversity among Maryland farmers also continues to lag with roughly 3 percent of that population being communities of color. The margins for agricultural producers in this system are slim and the debt and contract obligations under which they labor create substantial barriers to shifting into new markets. Meanwhile, saltwater intrusion driven by sea-level rise and increasing frequency of major storm events is disrupting the farming community.
It is the combination of Maryland’s natural characteristics and social dynamics that have led this project team to select the state for our food vision. WKC and our partners have served and supported communities throughout Maryland. Because of our collective experiences of working closely with Maryland residents on issues related to environmental justice, public health, sustainable farming, and pollution, we have an in-depth knowledge of the problems facing Maryland’s food system.
Through the collaboration of this project team, we not only hope to change the future of Maryland’s food system, but to establish a replicable model of sustainability that preserves our environment, diminishes food insecurity, and supports resilient communities.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Maryland’s current food system challenges are the result of less access to local healthy foods, a lack of cultural relationships built around food, fewer new farmers entering the industry, and the power dynamic being in favor of large industrialized farming. With efforts to address the issues of food, water, land use, and public health being disconnected from one another, it is even more difficult to effectively combat these challenges and accelerate progress from slow, incremental change.
According to a recent assessment of the Chesapeake Foodshed conducted by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, one of the key reasons why access to local food products remains low is that Maryland’s food supply chain lacks convenience, quality, and transparency. In addition, the state does not produce enough commonly consumed foods, which results in most of Maryland’s food coming from other regions. Currently, only lima beans, chicken, and corn have sufficient production to meet most of Maryland’s local demands, while pork, milk, and wheat have the potential to support nearly 90 percent of the demand. With a lack of easy access to healthy and affordable local food options, many Maryland residents are driven by convenience to purchase fast food and unhealthy snacks that are linked to obesity, chronic disease, hypertension, and early death.
Without a partnership of groups with the expertise to challenge our current food system, the system will continue to be rigged against us. Evidence of this can be found in the health, economic, and social inequities that have been further magnified, with communities of color and other vulnerable populations bearing the brunt of these negative impacts. Because members of at-risk communities can’t afford to live in a different neighborhood, they often live near factory farms where the stench in the air is wretched or near streams polluted by agricultural runoff. The monoculture has devastated the health of ecosystems, family farmers, economies, and urban and rural communities alike. Our communities tolerate all of this thanks to the dominant paradigm of our food system, whereby huge agribusiness maximizes their profits and minimizes government oversight while our local communities bear the real costs of industrial farming practices.
When considering how our vision will impact Maryland’s food system in 2050, our project team will take the lessons learned from our ongoing work in Maryland’s Eastern Shore to guide our strategies for the rest of the state. By 2050, Maryland’s Eastern Shore will be radically changed by sea level rise, intrusion of saltwater into forests and farm-fields, and increasingly intense extreme weather and dangerous heat waves. While these challenges are unique to the Eastern Shore, other regions of Maryland are expected to experience similar, if not more severe, environmental impacts caused by climate change.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
We envision a food system where the dominant economic, legal, and cultural incentives promote sustainability from field to fork. Through our proposed activities, we will empower consumers to be agents of change, ensure all Marylanders can access and afford local and sustainably grown food, and build meaningful institutional support for local agriculture markets and diversified, regenerative farming practices that are economically profitable for farmers.
Because our project team is actively working on implementing parts of our larger vision in the communities on the Eastern Shore, we will rely on the lessons learned from those activities to guide our strategy for the state of Maryland. We believe that while the Eastern Shore agricultural community will be radically different in 2050 as a result of our vision, it will also be thriving.
Fewer acres of conventional crop-lands will be filled with nutrient dense fruits, vegetables, and grains, while the fields now exposed to saltwater intrusion will be planted with salt-tolerant crops, bringing much needed diversity to the agricultural output of the region. Farmers will have abandoned intensive applications of pesticides and fertilizers in favor of integrated pest management and regenerative soil practices, not only because of the improved outcomes for the health and safety of drinking water, for example, but also because increased precipitation and flooding have made these conventional practices less cost-effective.
Livestock husbandry practices will adapt as well. Conventional chicken breeds susceptible to heat stress and the rising costs associated with cooling enormous, exposed metal chicken houses will incentivize farmers to adopt hardier breeds and to utilize cooler, natural habitats for grazing. Together, these and other agricultural adaptation practices and strategies will contribute to a safer, cleaner, more resilient community and an agricultural economy that benefits local families and businesses.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Aerial view of the Ayers Creek Watershed in Maryland
View from Pocomoke River, Maryland
Aerial images of a CAFO flooded in Pocomoke, Maryland
Vegetables from Grand View Farm, a Fair Farms partner
Eggs from Grand View Farm, a Fair Farms partner
View from Oksana's Produce, a Fair Farms partner
Chickens on Even Star Farm, a Fair Farms partner
Flowers from Even Star Farm, a Fair Farms partner
Sheep grazing on the farm of a Fair Farms partner
View of a farm belonging to a Fair Farms partner.
Residents of Maryland, particularly the communities our project team is currently working with on the Lower Eastern Shore, will embark on the second half of this century with a renewed sense of opportunity and connections to the people they are feeding because we have transformed the dominant economic, legal, and cultural incentives in ways that will promote sustainability from field to fork. It is a long way from where we are today to that 2050 vision. In our conversations with people from all walks of life on the Lower Shore, we are hearing the same things that are repeated in rural communities everywhere -- the economics of industrial farming are impossible to bear, future generations are abandoning farming to pursue other fields of work, and it is difficult to reach those wealthy consumers who pay a premium for foods that are produced in ways that support farmers, the environment, and their local communities. Yet those conversations have also helped WKC and our partners start sketching out a path to our 2050 vision.
On the environment, we have tackled traditional pollution problems like nutrient runoff sediment erosion by holding polluters accountable to legal requirements and watchdogging state agencies’ oversight. As we continue that work, we see changing precipitation and saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise as emerging concerns that can be addressed through adaptation on farms and in the law.
On diets, we are buoyed by growing consumer interest in healthy food sourced locally from sustainable production methods. CDC data from 2017 indicate that regional markets have room to grow in terms of fruit and vegetable consumption, with Maryland ranking 19th among states for residents’ daily consumption of fruits and 28th for residents’ daily consumption of vegetables. The state’s overall wealth and generally progressive policy-making apparatus present opportunities for promoting healthier eating that will improve economic incentives for a more diverse agricultural system on the Lower Shore.
Technology presents opportunities not only to make more efficient use of inputs on farms, but also to improve the logistics of distribution and even create new forms of agricultural production (e.g., plant-based “meats”). We see potential for these technologies to change perceptions about farming in ways that might bring younger workers into the field.
And all of this work is shifting cultural perspectives, because we put a heavy emphasis on communications and narrative development. Changing cultural perspectives will change political power dynamics and set the stage for policy reform.
In pursuit of our vision, we will:
1. Shift trajectories of progress in meaningful and discernible ways - produce bigger, broader, faster, and more equitable change.
From the start, our collaborative has grounded its work in a theory of change that looks beyond incremental or short-term solutions. Rather we look at how we can address the root problems to create a new system and culture rather than propping up a broken model. While this takes more up-front work and investments, the long-term pay off is lasting and transformational.
With the support and expertise of our partners, we will tear down silos, bring all key players to the table, and build a network of empowered community members with the skills and confidence to no longer accept the status quo. We will no longer accept or allow for decisions to be made behind the scenes. Instead, due to our efforts to change the culture and narrative, the most impacted communities and all key stakeholders will be a part of developing a new path forward. These changes will go beyond the food system, fighting climate change and racial and economic inequality and supporting regenerative farmers and resilient communities.
2. Alter critical relationships and power dynamics in lasting ways - reconfigure the landscape on which food systems reform advocacy efforts take place.
There is a powerful, false public narrative in the Chesapeake Bay region. The industrial agriculture sector has demonized and marginalized the environmental and public health community, painting a skewed picture of radical activists hellbent on destroying family farmers. Industrial farms have been able to pollute in virtual secrecy, having secured a number of regulatory exceptions to reporting requirements. Food subsidies drive up the costs of healthy, sustainable food, while the worst foods for us, farmers, lands and waterways remain cheap.
WKC’s Fair Farms campaign originally started due to frustration with the rigged system, and a feeling that there was no way to beat it with such unfavorable odds on our side. Recognizing that we all need healthy food, clean water, air and land, giving up this cause was not an option. So, we completely changed the playing field. Fair Farms did this by transforming the narrative. Using the power of stories and human connections, Fair Farms seeks to open consumers’ eyes to an attainable food future, and call a new constituency of Marylanders to action that can achieve the shared goals of a sustainable and fair food system and healthy waterways.
Like the Fair Farms campaign, this project team believes in the power and strength of all people to challenge ill-conceived practices and effect long-term, systemic change. We seek to enact widespread change in our food system that begins and ends with an informed, engaged constituency, motivated to make healthy and sustainable choices for themselves, their families and their neighbors. And when speaking collectively for change, we also have the power to ensure that sound policies are adopted locally, regionally, and nationally to create a more sustainable and equitable food system.
3. Work closely with our project team networks to build a Maryland Foodshed identity that supports the creation of a strong cultural relationship around food.
One of the unique qualities of this project’s partners is our collective ability to deliver well-articulated and strategic communications and messaging with deep-rooted advocacy and policy expertise. Our team can move from telling moving stories to educating and motivating consumers to take direct action to writing testimony for a legislative hearing. Leveraging each organization’s diverse network of partnerships across the state, ranging from small farmers to local community advocacy groups to regional grocery chain owners, our project team will create a Maryland Foodshed identity that creates unique opportunities for individuals and whole communities to build strong cultural relationships around food. Working with our networks, we will create a “Flavors of Maryland” festival toolkit with resources to help residents create meaningful exchanges around food. With our connections in multiple sectors, we will bring “Flavors of Maryland” and the Maryland Foodshed “brand” to the public through a variety of channels, including public access television, radio, and social media.
Our proposal to continue building upon the success of this movement will rely on our ability to bring together diverse organizations and individuals, strengthening relationships across sectors that can be used to make effective change on food systems and beyond. Through our proposed Academy, we will help individuals and local communities access and use their power and equip them with the tools and networks required to make transformational change, regardless of the issue area. By supporting WKC and our broad partnerships, Rockefeller Foundation, SecondMuse and OpenIDEO will be investing in empowered advocates who can act on other important challenges, both currently known and those we will face in the future.
Through events like film screenings, we will uplift the diverse voices of individuals exemplifying the goals of our vision. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures Farm is a great example. His short documentary film "100,000 Beating Hearts" shares the story of how he transitioned his farm and his community from the point of complete collapse (due to industrial agriculture practices) to a thriving and sustainable farming town.
4. Prepare for the greater food demand in 2050 by creating a Community Development Corporation (CDC) that furthers our vision and supports increased equity among all supply chain participants.
The key to the success of our vision will be our ability to ensure all members of the supply chain are given a voice. Our project team recognizes that the most effective way to accomplish this is by establishing a sustainable entity that is made up of multiple organizations and stakeholders.
Taking our inspiration from other successful Community Development Corporation (CDC) designs like Coastal Enterprises, Inc (https://www.ceimaine.org/) and the Southern Mutual Help Association (http://www.southernmutualhelp.org/), our collaborative will lead a statewide effort to create an organization charged with coordinating and implementing our vision among all supply chain participants. With an established Maryland Foodshed identity, we will call this CDC the Maryland Foodshed for All Project (MFAP) and will guide its implementation and strategy to include both public and private sector support and participation in fundraising and board responsibilities. For the MFAP to effectively execute our vision, it will need to regularly collaborate with food system advocates and stakeholders to ensure every voice is heard and that the interests of consumers, farmers, workers, and businesses are both protected and reflect the key principles of justice and equity. In addition, the MFAP will reinvest in Maryland communities through grantmaking and lending opportunities that encourage individual wealth generation and the long-term sustainability of our food system.