Prime Time Living - Page 14 - Joe Bartenfelder

Prime Time Living
- Page 14
Joe Bartenfelder
Maryland’s Secretary of Agriculture

By Margit B. Weisgal, Contributing Writer

As the temperatures rise and the sun brings the warmth we’ve craved all winter, one event that signifies spring has officially arrived is the opening of the Baltimore Farmers’ Market & Bazaar, a producers-only event under the Jones Falls Expressway. When you visit, there’s an omnipresent figure, immediately recognizable to the farmers who bring their crops: Joe Bartenfelder, Maryland’s Secretary of Agriculture. Much more than a politician, Bartenfelder is a fifth-generation farmer, working with his children and grandchildren on his family’s four farms, cultivating over 500 acres.

During set-up, Bartenfelder roams the area, a broad smile on his face, greeting and chatting with his fellow farmers, listening to the latest news. Stand owners welcome him when he arrives, ready to discuss their status, knowing he’ll understand.

Bartenfelder’s parents tried to steer him away from farming, knowing how difficult the life is. “Back then, we had a postage stamp-sized farm outside of Baltimore City with limited ground available and no potential to expand. Commodity prices were down, the city’s development was encroaching and, much like today, the elements – always questionable – were something on which we were dependent, so it was a no-win situation.”

That first farm was acquired by Baltimore City for a reservoir, so they moved to the Eastern Shore where the sixth and seventh generations are continuing the dynasty. “I work for them for free,” he explains, “but it’s a family enterprise.

To be successful, you have to work together. And I still love it. When I’m out in the fields, it provides solitude, peace of mind, time for me to mull over what I did, what I didn’t do or should do, and it helps me focus and sift through the problems we face.

“I’ve always been in politics,” Bartenfelder continued. “For me, it’s the perfect blend, the perfect job combination, because I’m in a position to help the farmers throughout Maryland. You can’t make everyone happy, but at the same time, knowing I have the same problems they have, it helps diffuse the pressure.”

Prior to becoming the Secretary of Agriculture, Bartenfelder served as a member of the Baltimore County Council, representing District 6, and chaired the Baltimore County Spending Affordability Committee. He also served as a member of the House of Delegates representing District 8 (Baltimore County).

There have been a lot of changes in the world of agriculture, from climate change to shifts in people’s tastes as new products become popular. “As a farmer,” says Bartenfelder, “the weather we have today is a lot different than we were familiar with. I used to spend summers picking crops, but now, the hot spells last longer and the sun feels like it’s burning a hole in my shirt. Tomatoes need heat, but when it’s this hot, they’re turning orange and ripening before their time. When the foods we’re growing get burned, they’re not saleable. For instance, the sunburned watermelons look terrible; the inside is good, but no one will buy them.”

And change is constant. With changing tastes come different crops. “We’ve added dinosaur kale (also called lacinto or Tuscan kale), red curly kale, 11 varieties of peppers (poblano, jalapeno, and smaller specialty peppers), seedless watermelons and flowers. Although we still grow the old standards, we’re always paying attention to the new trends.

“Farmers’ markets used to be the place to buy freshly grown foods, but today, groceries are sourcing seasonal produce locally, so shoppers have an alternative,” says Bartenfelder. “It’s easier to park and get what they need along with their staples, so our direct to consumer sales have dropped. On top of that, shoppers used to buy large quantities for canning and preserving. Today they buy one bag’s worth. And now there are community markets throughout the week, so our sales are spread out more.”

Bartenfelder switches gears to talk about his role in government. “Most politicians have no idea what daily operations encompass for farmers, our food producers. We started doing agricultural tours for delegates and senators, visiting five to six farms with different operations, so they could see what’s involved. This helped them to gain a basic understanding of what Maryland farmers go through to produce a safe food supply and what they’ve done to protect the watershed and Chesapeake Bay.”

“A watershed – sometimes called a basin or drainage basin – is an area of land that drains into a particular river, lake or other body of water. We all live in a watershed. Some watersheds, like that of a stream or creek, are small. Others, like the Chesapeake Bay watershed, are large,” according to the Chesapeake Bay Program ( www.chesapeakebay.net ) The Bay’s watershed links six states – New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – and is one of the largest in the U.S., covering 64,000 miles and home to over 18 million people.

Under the aegis of the U.S. Department

Interview, continued on page 30