The Maryland Department of Agriculture has been serving the agriculture community and the people of Maryland since 1973. While MDA’s look has changed over the years, the mission and vision has remained steadfast: to protect consumers, preserve the environment, and promote Maryland agriculture.
Prior to 1973, agricultural interests were served by the University of Maryland at College Park. The Maryland General Assembly established the Department after recognizing that a separate agency was needed to serve this critical industry that is as diverse as the state and second to none in its importance to the state’s economy, environment, food supply and quality of life. The new agency took on regulatory and advisory functions while agricultural research and extension service functions remained at College Park as they do today.
Several secretaries have led the department over its history.
The first Agriculture Secretary, Y.D. Hance, was appointed by then-Governor Marvin Mandel. Mr. Hance was an established tobacco farmer.
In 1979, Wayne A. Cawley, Jr. became the second secretary. He oversaw the final design and construction of MDA’s new headquarters. Completed in 1982, the new facility symbolized the critical importance of agriculture to every facet of Maryland life.
MDA building under construction
During Secretary Cawley’s 12 years of service, he expanded agriculture’s domestic and international marketing efforts, established the Maryland with Pride campaign, oversaw the research and development of the aquaculture industry and implemented nutrient management programs to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
When Secretary Cawley retired in 1991, Governor William Donald Schaefer named MDA’s Annapolis complex: the Wayne A. Cawley, Jr. Headquarters Building.
In 1991, Robert L. Walker became the department’s third secretary after having served as deputy. During his tenure, he forged ties with the emerging countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He continued the focus on keeping agriculture strong in Maryland.
In his own words, “We focused on promoting, preserving and protecting agriculture and trying to do that to the extent we can to look at the profitability of the family farm. Marketing and promoting agriculture, which is what I thought is one of the most important things. So I think marketing is very important. Exports are important - one in three acres as you know go abroad from the farm. It’s critical to our health as an agricultural economy and also the state, nation. So much of what happens with respect to the profitability of the farm, is beyond the farmers control. It’s beyond the farm gate.”
Lewis Riley, a poultry farmer on the lower Eastern Shore, was both the fourth and seventh secretary, serving from 1994 to 1997 and again from 2003 to 2007.
In his own words, “The secretaries have always been interested in promoting the industry. Because really that’s their job. They are there to represent Maryland’s number 1 industry. Environmental issues have become probably the most serious thing the farmers have to deal with. The farm community understands why, but sometimes it takes a lot of cooperation - helping to help them get in the position to abide by the rules and the regulations. So I think the Secretaries have had a very difficult job. It’s a tough job to help the farmers accomplish what they have to accomplish.”
Henry A. “Bud” Virts, a veterinarian, became the department’s fifth secretary in 1998. Dr. Virts worked at MDA for 14 years, first as an assistant state veterinarian and later deputy secretary. Dr. Virts stepped up MDA’s international marketing efforts with initiatives to promote the state’s horse industry in Korea and Europe and established ties with the Caribbean and South America.
In his own words, “What my staff accomplished made me very proud. We came up with the tobacco buyout and we started planning on that. They developed this and sold it to the farm community – the tobacco farmers. The administration and the secretary of agriculture - the governor and secretary - have a great relationship and I’m so happy to see that. They will support agriculture. I think the cooperation is much, much better with administration and that makes you feel very good.”
Hagner R. Mister, the department’s sixth secretary, served from 2001-2003. During his time, Secretary Mister – who is a farmer himself – helped Southern Maryland farmers transition from growing tobacco to other crops under the state’s Tobacco Buyout program.
In his own words, “We had the tobacco buyout program. And I am a tobacco farmer – was a tobacco farmer – not anymore. And I was amazed at how fast the tobacco left Southern Maryland. The farmers’ markets and the MALPF program - that’s still there. Looks like the department is doing well and I’m proud of them.”
Roger L. Richardson served as Secretary from 2007 until early 2009. He oversaw the implementation of Maryland’s Farm to School Program, now considered a national model and the first in the nation to have all public schools systems participating.
In his own words, “I guess one of the best things that we did – the Governor had told me that where he came from there were no farms. And he wanted someone with farm experience to help him establish rapport with the ag industry. We accomplished that. He was very thankful. He’s been to all the ag dinners. And that’s been very good. Ag is the largest industry in the state and also the biggest economic engine in the state and that needs to be remembered when you are up here representing agriculture you need to know that.”
Earl “Buddy” Hance, a 4th generation southern Maryland farmer, served as the eighth Secretary of MDA from 2009 to 2014, after serving two years as Deputy Secretary. In his own words, “The two things I am most proud of are our farmers implementing best management practices to meet our goals of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and our farmers who have opened up their farms to increase profitability and educate the public about Maryland agriculture. And I must acknowledge the staff, which just seems more like a family, for their dedication and commitment to the entire agricultural community of Maryland.”
Joseph “Joe” Bartenfelder, was the department’s 9th Secretary, with a term from 2014 to January 2023. Mr. Bartenfelder is a farmer and also served as a member of each of the following: the Baltimore County Council, the Baltimore County Spending Affordability Committee, and the House of Delegates.
In his own words, “I am honored to head this agency which supports Maryland farmers and watermen. Maryland farmers continue to participate in land preservation and using conservation practices on the farm, thereby protecting the Chesapeake Bay. I am proud of the MDA staff that promotes agriculture through its various programs, including marketing of Maryland food products including seafood and managing the Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu outbreak, and the Spotted Lanternfly invasion. Through the efforts of Maryland farmers, watermen, and MDA staff, Maryland has become a leader in restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay and a national model for sustainable agriculture.”
In January of 2023, Secretary Kevin Atticks, the department's tenth Secretary, began his appointed term. Atticks was CEO (and founder) of Grow & Fortify, a non-profit that supports value-added agricultural organizations and businesses. Atticks was also the Executive Director of the Maryland Wineries Association, Brewers Association of Maryland and the Maryland Distillers Guild, and served as the President of the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council.
As the department has evolved, so has the way it does business. Programs across the agency, from routine administration to field inspections of all sorts, have become more efficient and precise with the use of ever more sophisticated technologies and more professionally trained and educated staff members. But the core functions – the main services provided, have not changed. Looking briefly at some of the services:
The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation is the oldest and among the most successful farmland preservation programs in the nation. It was the first program in the country to purchase development rights. The Foundation has helped preserve more agricultural land in perpetuity than any other state.
Through the years, MDA’s Office of Resource Conservation has provided farmers with the technical and financial assistance they need to enhance farm productivity while protecting soil and water resources.
The Plant Protection & Weed Management section protects Maryland’s second largest agricultural sector – horticulture and nursery.
MDA works with federal and state partners to detect and combat invasive pests and plants and noxious weeds to protect farmers, nurseries and homeowners.
Maryland was the first state to use a dog to detect honeybee colony diseases.
MDA’s Forest Pest Management section protects landscape trees and forests from diseases and insects that can damage and destroy them.
MDA’s Mosquito Control program protects public health by preventing mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis. MDA has ultra low volume spray trucks and an airplane that are all highly effective and use minimal insecticide.
The Pesticide Regulation section enforces pesticide laws and trains and certifies programs to help ensure that only competent individuals handle and apply pesticides. Pesticide Regulation also works closely with schools statewide to implement Integrated Pest Management programs and ensure that pesticides are only used when necessary.
MDA works with farmers and other professionals on recycling programs to reduce the impact excessive pesticides might have on the environment.
MDA’s Turf and Seed Section tests seeds for farmers, seed dealers and the general public and enforces seed and sod labeling laws to ensure farmers and gardeners begin with quality seed. All the seed analysts are certified in both purity and germination by the Association of Official Seed Analysts.
The State Chemist Section inspects pet food, fertilizer and other materials to ensure they meet safety and labeling standards. From time to time, the State Chemist will place recalls and stop sale orders to remove dangerous or potentially dangerous products from sale.
The Food Quality Assurance Program protects consumers from food borne diseases by both training and inspecting producers in safe food production and handling practices. FDA’s mandatory egg inspection program was largely based on the inspection protocols MDA developed to address Salmonella E contamination.
The Weights & Measures Section ensures that weighing and measuring devices in commercial use – like gas pumps and grocery scales – are calibrated properly. Ensuring proper weight and measurement is one of the oldest functions of government. The sophisticated testing and metrology labs are both accredited at the national level.
The State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners licenses and sets the standards for veterinarians, registered veterinary technicians, and animal hospital owners across the state. It also disciplines veterinary professionals, when necessary.
MDA’s Animal Health Section prevents and controls infectious and contagious diseases in livestock and poultry with emphasis on diseases that threaten public health, endanger food supplies or threaten animal industries. Because animal diseases can spread quickly and must be attacked quickly, MDA operates two regional veterinary diagnostic laboratories – one in Frederick and one in Salisbury. Both of the labs are accredited for meeting international standards when conducting specific diagnostic tests.
MDA’s Marketing and Agribusiness Development staff works to connect producers with consumers with initiatives like Maryland’s Best Branding program, the Buy Local Campaign, the Ice Cream Trail, and the Farm to School Program.
MDA initiated the development of farmers markets and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. The department also helps farmers find and expand sales overseas for value-added foods, livestock and genetics.
The Maryland Horse Industry Board, founded in 1998, promotes all disciplines within Maryland’s equine industry. It also inspects and licenses hundreds of boarding, lesson, rental and rescue stables.
There are many other initiatives and recognition programs that MDA runs to recognize agricultural success and farm families like the Governor’s Agriculture Hall of Fame program and the Century Farm program.
Also, for many years the MDA staff adopted a needy family and helped address their specific needs, whether its food, clothes for the children or Christmas presents.
Another important service that someone – but who? – has provided is entertaining the public with the dressing of the MDA cow statutes. The decorated cow statutes are both a tradition and a mystery as it is unknown as to who dresses them in outfits appropriate for the season.
Dedicated to the programs and services that preserve and protect agricultural resources and the environment, promote profitable agriculture and consumer confidence and enhance the quality of life for all Marylanders, the staff at the Maryland Department of Agriculture is pleased to serve the citizens of Maryland and thank you for reading this history.
Please also watch a 12 minute soundbook by award-winning photographer Edwin Remsberg, which summarizes the history of the agency up until 2013. The soundbook includes brief interviews with past living Agriculture Secretaries and is narrated by former Secretary Buddy Hance. View the soundbook online.