“What’s Next?” Earl, Buddy, Hance, Maryland’s Secretary of Agriculture, Calvert County Commissioner
– Janice F. Booth, Maryland Correspondent Mar 22, 2019 Updated Mar 22, 2019
“I always have the farm. I’m always going to be there,” said Earl “Buddy” Hance, former Secretary of Maryland’s Department of Agriculture during Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration. Hance served six years looking after the interests and security of Maryland farmers. Since leaving office, he has reconnected with his roots and shouldered new responsibilities.
To understand the roots of Hance’s dedication to farming, you have to go back four generations. Hance is passionate about the 600-acre family farm.
“It’s all I wanted to do. I loved it. Couldn’t wait to get home from school to jump on the tractor,” Hance said.
Together with his brother, Tommy, young Hance learned how to plant and harvest tobacco, as had his ancestors for generations. When Maryland enacted a tobacco farming buyout plan in 2000, farmers were incented to give up farming those valuable, fragrant tobacco leaves. Like most of the tobacco farmers in Maryland, the Hance brothers turned their acreage from tobacco farming to other crops.
In a 2001 New York Times article, Hance stoically observed, “Farming is a lifestyle but it’s also a business,’’ explaining why farmers like the Hances accepted the state’s offer of financial support as they permanently switched from tobacco farming to other, possibly less lucrative and less familiar crops.
Hance’s first major foray into politics came about during this difficult transition period in Maryland. Maryland’s transition plan provided tobacco farmers with a guaranteed 10-year financial support program to achieve a smooth transition from tobacco farming. State programs also helped farmers gain the necessary skills to produce unfamiliar and riskier crops as well as raising livestock.
Hance was asked to lead the Southern Maryland Ag Development Commission, which is part of Tri County Council for Southern Maryland, a regional planning group that was responsible for supporting Maryland’s three tobacco-growing counties, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s. As the director of that transition team, Hance helped dismantle one of the largest, most lucrative tobacco farming industries in the country, replacing tobacco with diverse, economically viable, alternative crops, such as corn, soybeans, truck garden produce and flowers.
“Tobacco farmers were being offered 10-years’ worth of payments to give up tobacco farming. We had greenhouses for tobacco, so our solution was to contract with Bell Nursery and others as independent flower growers,” Hance said.
While his farm, and farming in general, was going through these big changes, Hance and his wife, Robin, were raising their three children; Crystal, Casey and Shawn.
While Hance’s family made its way with new crops, new challenges and financial uncertainty, Hance became more active in the political side of farming. In 2003, he was elected president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, a position he held until 2007. A year later, in 2004, Hance became a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Board of Directors, a position that he held until he became Maryland’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in 2007, and Secretary of Agriculture in 2009.
Hance’s busy tenure as Secretary of Agriculture included an innovation which remains a big success to the present time: the development of the television series “Maryland Farm & Harvest,” which airs on Maryland Public Television, and has done so since 2010.
Another innovative program established under Hance’s leadership is the Maryland Ice Cream Trail.
“We needed to generate some publicity for the dairy industry,” Hance said as the inspiration for the program. Since the success of the Ice Cream Trail, the Maryland Wine Trail has been added. In each case, a route was devised to take visitors to various dairy farms or vineyards and wineries. At each stop tourists collected stamps or stickers, and hopefully, sampled the products offered at each farm or vineyard. Attractive brochures guide tourists from location to location, a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.
After leaving state government, Hance returned full-time to the farm where he raises corn and soybeans. Even while Secretary of Agriculture, Hance spent weekends and evenings back on the tractor, in his beloved fields. While his brother, Tommy, has retired from farming, Hance is even more committed to maintaining his farm.
When asked if he missed his time in state politics, Hance said, “I miss the staff (at the Department of Agriculture). They share vast experience and historical information. And I miss getting out and around the state, seeing what was going on.”
But Hance is not one to sit around longing for what is past. In 2018, he ran for and won a seat on the Calvert County Board of Commissioners. Along with the four other commissioners and their staff, Hance is working on broadband access and education goals, as well as other issues critical to Calvert County residents.
“There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity out there now, with technology and computer scientists. Tremendous opportunities for first generation farms too, young people experimenting. You have to stay engaged and be active,” Hance said. “We’re small groups, but we pay such a big role in state affairs. There are always opportunities.”
Returning to the farm, to his tractor and his fields, and taking up public service in his own community are clear indications that the “Renewal Retirement Plan” was the right option for Hance.
This is one in a series of occasional articles on farmers and agriculturalists of an age when they undertake new chapters in their lives, once covered under the misnomer “retirement.” Each article looks at how one person ha