By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
For the past 17 years, Joanne Richart Young has worked to improve the position of Cecil County’s agriculture community within the county and the state.
She retired at the close of 2017.
For generations, agriculture has been an important component of Cecil County’s way of life and its economy.
Cecil County contains 222,824 acres with 77,000 acres, nearly 35%, still being devoted to agriculture.
Agricultural statistics show that county crops have an annual value of well over $100 million and that does not include sales of tree fruits, vegetables, greenhouse and nursery stock, livestock ventures and the significant impact of the thoroughbred and standardbred horse industry in the county.
Those facts are the reason Cecil County has devoted a staff position for the promotion of agriculture.
Young’s job has been to be the head cheerleader for agriculture. She has worked to bring the varied interests of the local agriculture community together to work for their mutual interests. This helps achieve the goal of promoting and improving the economic vitality of agriculture. When elected officials have questions about agriculture, Young has been the one called to help explain agriculture issues. Public awareness is also important to let the public know of the importance and value of the agriculture within the county.
Young came to Cecil County from Florida where she worked with state government in the field of agriculture.
She has enjoyed her years in Cecil County.
“In the 17 years I have been here, I have seen agriculture grow and diversify,” Young said.
While she has worked to raise public awareness of the importance of farming in Cecil County through initiatives such as the annual harvest dinners featuring locally-grown foods, Young said the average citizen still needs to learn more about the value of agriculture.
Cecil County agricultural products are sold locally, regionally and even internationally, Young said. Local grain products are part of the Chesapeake Fields program which gets products into the international market.
Young is enthusiastic as she lists the many agricultural assets in the county. The county has a USDA certified butcher, Gavinell Butcher Shop, which attracts customers from a wide area. Farming operations that grow cattle, like the Isaacson and Stafford farms, sell locally and also take on-line orders.
Vegetable growing includes customized CSA operations, Young said. These farms offer many fresh, unique products for consumers.
Young said an increasing number of agriculture business people, like Vic Priapi in Cecilton, are using new technology greenhouses, allowing them to grow produce throughout the year.
Then there are the agriculture tourism farms. Milburn Orchards grows a lot of fruit and also brings people into the agriculture way of life through programs throughout the year.
The equine industry is well-represented within the county, Young said. With the expectation that Fair Hill International will grow in stature, she said that will further raise the profile of agriculture within the county.
As agriculture coordinator, Young has pushed the concept of Farmers Markets. For several years, she has worked with the farmers market in North East. There are markets in other towns. Young said the community needs to better understand the value of having farm-fresh products so close to home.
“People don’t get it,” she said.
But that message has been received at Union Hospital, Young said.
“Union Hospital is buying more and more stuff locally,’ she said, noting that if people consume food in the hospital as a patient or visitor, as much as a half of the food served is locally sourced.
Young is hopeful the educational system will continue to work toward promoting the importance of agriculture and jobs associated with farming. She said the local Farm Bureau is working with the School of Technology. Young noted that school meals could be enhanced by using more local products, saying that with the tree fruit farms in Cecil County, there should be local apples on food trays, not ones with a Washington State sticker on them.
“I hope the Harvest Dinner goes forth,” Young said. This annual dinner, held in a local restaurant, showcases an entire meal created from local products – from wine, to meat, to vegetables to ice cream.
Young has represented Cecil County within local and statewide farm organizations. The value has been to put Cecil County on the radar when agriculture issues are being discussed at the state level. Raising the profile of farming is also vital to the business side of farming. They need funding to start-up their seasons and it is important to make sure that financial institutions are sensitive to the needs of the farmers, Young said.
“I get calls for help,” Young said, explaining that she has worked to answer questions from farmers.
For instance, Young has helped farmers when health department policy changes have left a farmer with no idea how to shift their operation to stay within guidelines.
Since announcing her retirement, Young said she has heard from people who are hopeful the county will continue this position within the Office of Economic Development.
Young said the challenge has been to represent the many facets of this diverse economic portion of the county’s economy.
“There are so many types of small farms that collectively have an impact on the economy,” she said.
Maintaining a robust agricultural community is important for Cecil County’s future, Young said.
With the county promoting the growth corridor between the US 40 and I-95 roadways, maintaining green space in other areas is important, Young said.
“To me, the number one thing is the balance between the growth corridor and farms,” Young said. “You can have the best of both worlds.”