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Ag Study: Marylanders Connect More With Farming Than Forestry

UMD-affiliated Hughes Center Surveyed Public’s Familiarity With Agriculture Industry

By Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology Staff

Farmers Market

Photo by Edwin Remsberg

Farmers and the general public interact at a Maryland farmers market.

A new first-ever statewide survey shows that Marylanders have many connections to agriculture and hold highly favorable views of farmers, but have less familiarity with the economic importance and environmental benefits of the state’s forestry industry.

The resulting report is the first step in quantifying agricultural and forestry literacy in Maryland’s residents and increasing awareness of the industries fueling Maryland’s economy, said Nancy Nunn, assistant director of Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“This is the first study of its kind in Maryland to gain a baseline measurement of consumer behavior and attitudes toward agriculture,” Nunn said. “Understanding what Marylanders think and know about agriculture is key to successfully promoting economically viable and environmentally sound public policies and consumer behavior.”

The study was based on survey results from the Annapolis-based research firm OpinionWorks, which last summer conducted online interviews with 813 household decision-makers throughout the state followed by a series of focus groups held in Central Maryland.

Among the findings:

Marylanders Feel Connected to Agriculture: Although they live mainly in metropolitan areas, according to the survey, 45 percent of respondents had visited a farm that produces food in the preceding year and more than a quarter know a farmer personally. Additionally, more than half shop at a farm stand or market (55 percent), and 12 percent said they frequently do that.

Consumers Have Positive Views of Farmers: Some 78 percent of respondents believe agriculture is vital to the state’s economy, but 74 percent were surprised to learn that agriculture is the state’s largest private industry, supporting 350,000 jobs. A large majority of consumers—65 percent—believe that Maryland farmers are environmental stewards who take good care of the land, and 59 percent said they work hard to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Only one-third believe Maryland farmers are overregulated, however.

“As a state, we can be proud that our farmers lead the nation in conservation farming with the highest percentage of no-till and cover crop use to prevent unwanted runoff,” Nunn said.
Marylanders were less positive about other aspects of
farming, however, with only 49 percent saying they believe animals are well cared for on Maryland farms.

Consumers Value Food That Is Produced Responsibly: On average, Marylanders ranked the importance of eating food that’s produced in an environmentally responsible way at 3.6 on a five-point scale, with five being most important. They ranked treating agricultural animals well at 3.8 out of five. But knowing that food and beverages were produced locally rather than shipped long distances ranked a bit lower among their priorities, scoring 3.2.

Forestry is Less Familiar: Maryland forestry scored a lower in favorability on a five-point scale than did agriculture in the state, with 3.6 for forestry and 3.9 for farming. Forty-two percent of respondents were “neutral” or “not sure” what they thought about foresters. But 86 percent said they were surprised to learn that Maryland’s forestry industry contributes $4 billion to the state economy, employing 10,000 and adding $26 million in taxes, and 55 percent felt more positive about forestry after learning these facts.

Wood Product Purchasing Less Discriminate than Food: Respondents on average ranked the importance of buying wood products harvested near where they lived at just 2.9 out of five. The average for buying wood products harvested in an environmentally sustainable way was 3.3.

Maryland Consumers Support Responsible Harvesting but Not Clear-Cutting: Only 41 percent of Marylanders agreed that state forests would be healthier if they were actively thinned and managed for pests. When survey respondents were asked if they “prefer there be no logging” in Maryland, 38 percent answered affirmatively while only 12 percent disagreed. Half the public is neutral or not sure on this topic.

Although loggers only remove a fraction of their trees on a rotating basis, Nunn said the study’s focus-group interviews produced strong and intuitive reactions that often associated forestry with clear-cutting and development.

“It’s apparent that as a state and industry, we need to do a better job of sharing the story of responsible forestry,” she said.





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