Pollinating the local economy to grow jobs and prosperity

Consumer demand is changing the U.S. food industry and local economies can take advantage of consumer demandpollinating for less processed fresh and local foods. A National Good Food Network webinar last week highlighted some ways to grow the local economy.

Rather than simply attracting another region’s businesses and retaining the ones you have, Michael Shuman, author of The Local Economy Solution, suggests that local governments and nonprofits should:

(1) Maximize local ownership. (2) Maximize local self-reliance. (3) Spread models of Triple Bottom Line  success.(4) Create an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

the PsHe noted that the first instinct of many pollinators (i.e. those seeking to grow local food businesses) is to turn to outside funders. A better approach is to work with local businesses and investors to build the local economy. Main Street Genome is an example of how pollinators can help to level the playing field for local business development by providing expert advice. Another is the Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C. (mentioned here previously) that helps to create food businesses by handling all the tough regulatory and infrastucture issues of food business development.

Local Money matters

A final point that Shuman makes is that a local bank is three times more likely to reinvest in the local community than a national bank. That is one way to ‘plug the leaks’ and boost the local economy.

Linda Best, founding member of FarmWorks in Nova Scotia, was the other speaker on the webinar. She talked about how the Canada province had been losing food production for 50 years, but was making a comeback with FarmWorks, whose mission is to “Promote, and provide, strategic and responsible community investment in food production and distribution in order to help increase access to a sustainable local food supply for all Nova Scotians.” In brief, FarmWorks links local investors with emerging companies.

We all know that in nature pollinators do magical work to turn flowers into food. Pollinating local economies can make the farm-to-table connections to grow jobs and prosperity.


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Walking-the-walk for Buy Local Challenge Week!

When Buy Local Challenge Week began 7 years ago, it was a challenge to find enough blc.imagelocally sourced food to feed yourself. No more. Aside from a few condiments, consumers can find a well-rounded diet. A locavore in Maryland can find a wide selection of meats and dairy year around. We can find a broad selection of seasonally grown fruits and vegetables, though it is next to impossible find locally sourced strawberries in the winter months!

To extend variety and supply beyond the growing seasons, some chefs, most notably Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, have been canning and/or freezing seasonal foods to use year around.

For farmers and those who support them, it is important to “walk-the-walk,” and sometimes “talk-the-walk” for locally sourced food, whenever we can, especially during a time when local vegetable and fruit farms absolutely depend on markets to survive. By walking the walk, I mean visiting local markets, retail establishments and restaurants that publicly advertise that they purchase from Maryland farms.

By talk-the-talk, I am suggesting that we all ask for locally-sourced food at facilities that don’t advertise local-sourced food. If they have it to offer, encourage them to advertise. If not, be persistent in asking. Talk-the-talk can also include inviting your friends to events that locally-source food and encouraging our member organizations to use locally-sourced food when they hold events.

Many people can intellectually accept the advantages of eating locally-sourced food, without practicing it, so I have some other reasons to tell them to help you close the deal:

  • A healthy ag economy is the best form of land preservation. Over 92% of all Marylanders support land preservation according a a 2010 survey by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
  • LocallyScreen Shot 2015-06-18 at 5.52.55 AM-sourced food builds the local economy, creating jobs and local investment.
  • Farms that can feed Maryland residents increase our food security and our ability to feed those in need.
  • Local foods promote food safety. In today’s global markets, contamination outbreaks tend to be hard to pin down and notifications are slow to consumers. It is great when you know where your food comes from and can ask about how the food is produced.
  • Local foods taste better! Fruits and tomatoes do not have to be ripened with gas. The varieties can be selected by farmers for taste rather than shelf life.

The Buy Local Challenge begins on July 18th. We only have one month to line up our local sources and encourage our family, friends, and groups to do the same!!



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Working to expand opportunities for Maryland farmers

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 7.47.16 AM

Tracy Ward presenting plans for the new Chesapeake Harvest Food Hub

In the past six months, the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission’s Rural Economies Workgroup has been exploring how Maryland can advance a wide variety of rural business ventures. On June 4th, the focus was on food production, aggregation and distribution.

The hope of many Maryland farmers is to gain more access to institutional, restaurant and retail markets. Members of the Food and Food Production subcommittee, including representatives of state departments, Maryland Farm Bureau, MARBIDCO and others, assembled at the Coastal Sunbelt facility in Savage Maryland to learn more about plans to scale up farm food aggregation and distribution. The discussion revolved around the nuts and bolts needed to turn the dream of a more complete local food movement into a reality.

Tracy Ward was the first speaker and she discussed the new Chesapeake Harvest food hub in development on the Eastern Shore, one of about a half-dozen in development around the state. She indicated that produce farmers wanted to grow food year round and that interested farmers are hoping to build 72 high tunnels to extend production beyond the regular growing season. The Food Hub is interested in contract purchasing to provide assurance that there would be markets for what is grown. Tracy outlined the opportunities and challenges for a local food hub.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 8.28.51 AM

Overlooking a Coastal Sunbelt work area during the tour of the facility in Savage, MD

She was followed by Jason Lambros, Vice President of Purchasing at Coastal Sunbelt Produce. He said that his company aggregates a million cases of food regionally and he believes that there is a market demand for triple that number. He noted that his company runs 200 trucks and most come back empty. Most of their produce still comes from California. He would be happy to work with local food hubs to aggregate and distribute food to larger markets.

The Company is also processing a dozen types of salsa on site and food processing will be a  significant part of the new expanded facility to open next year.

Participants left with a clearer picture of the opportunities and challenges to increase food aggregation and distribution from local farms in Maryland. The Food and Food Production subcommittee is expected to forward its recommendations to the Rural Economies Workgroup this summer. Ultimately, the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission will consider recommendations for legislation and policy changes to be forwarded to the General Assembly.


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Eroding trust in food safety is fueling the local food movement

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 10.53.41 AMA 2015 survey of American consumers, commissioned by the International Food Information Council Foundation, reveals that only 61% have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, down from 78% in 2012. The top concern about food safety in the 2015 survey was “chemicals in food” (36%), up from 23% in 2014. That eroding confidence is impacting U.S. food corporations and causing more consumers to seek out food from sources they feel are more reliable.

To address these concerns, many big food companies are buying small organic rivals such as a recent Hormel acquisition. But the organic label only goes as far as you trust the implementation and enforcement of the organic rules, particularly with imports of organic products. For example A USDA report issued in 2009 raised concerns about China’s weak enforcement of food safety standards, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and its considerable environmental pollution. As to its organic foods, the report noted “recurring problems with “filth,” unsafe additives, labeling (typically introduced in food processing and handling), and veterinary drug residues in fish and shellfish (introduced at the farm).” Because of a shortage of organically produced food in the U.S., a large percentage of it is imported and about 1% is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.

Last year, National Public Radio reported on a new book, Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling by Peter Laufer, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. His research left him suspicious. The NPR story noted that the USDA has been trying to increase its enforcement of organic standards in the U.S. and they observe that there is little evidence of widespread fraud.

The organic certification process is a good standard. However, the further that you Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.14.05 AMseparate food production from the consumer, the more likely that it will not be grown in a way that meets the ecological, fair labor and food safety standards of the consumer.

As my favorite ag philosopher Wendell Berry is quoted as saying “An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.” Organic certification is an important tool. Eating local can be an even better way to learn about your food.


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Do farms have to be profitable?

To many, farming is a rejection of urban lifestyles, of being chained to a desk. Farming is a lifestyle of independence and a connection to nature. But do farms have to be profitable?

Recently, I was in a conversation with Ginger Myers, Extension Marketing Specialist, and eggs for salea beginning farmer. We were discussing to what extent she wished to be profitable. She replied that she wants to sell her free-range, naturally raised eggs at a low price so that families of all income levels can afford them. Even when faced with feed, carton and hen replacement costs that would eliminate all of her profitability, she was firm in her commitment to be of help to the community by keeping her price very low.

Her motivations are noble and she is not alone. There are farmers and non-profits raising food and selling it at or below market value for the same reason — to help local residents be healthier with fresh local food. Why is food different from any other product? Can’t farming be meaningful and be profitable too? And does pricing one’s product below market value push out farmers who set their prices in order to earn a living wage?

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 6.45.00 AMAll of these are complicated issues. Consumers have said time and again that they want to support farmers, however they don’t have a good understanding of what it costs to get a tomato to market, or that fruits and vegetables are already priced so low because of competition with imported food from countries with low wages.

A farmer who has been in the business for over a dozen years noted  a couple of weeks ago that the farmers who seemed to succeed were ones that started with a spouse or partner with an off-farm job. However, a beginning farmer without such backup is particularly vulnerable to any miscalculation, loss of crop, or loss of market share –either by a legitimate competitor or one subsidized by other sources. It’s complicated.

The only answer that I have is that we should support farmers who have to make a living wage and that we, as consumers, be should sure that we are paying a fair price. To those who grow food just to help others in need, thank you.

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Romanticists and realists should see value in farm diversity!

MarylandfarmI cry at (good) movies and I think wistfully about the good ole days when quaint, picturesque, farms of all sizes dotted Maryland’s countryside. Each winter, I read stories of successful homesteaders and pledge to produce most of my own food. However, I know that some farmers went out of business in the “good ole days” and I know that I will be buying most of my food this year– locally sourced, if possible. Both the romanticist and the realist in me knows that a gardener and a farmer needs a backup plan. Whether it is food on the table or farm viability, diversity is key.

tobaccoWhen Maryland emerged as a successful colony, tobacco was its savior. It was in demand in Europe and it had a long shelf life so that it could endure the long, damp trek across the Atlantic. It was so popular, that every square inch of earth was used for tobacco production, even inside some of the forts. So much tobacco was grown in Maryland and Virginia that there was a worldwide glut a number of times. Other times, wars and international politics put a stop to export trade. Families suffered and farms failed.

By the middle of the 19th century, Maryland agriculture diversified as farmers began to supply most of the food for a growing industrial region with towns and cities. Not only was agriculture more diversified, each farm had a number of farm products to trade or sell. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was growing up, farm diversity provided a measure of insurance in the event that the main farm product failed or the market disappeared. I recall asking my father how badly the family suffered during the Great Depression. He replied that, other than not being able to buy a few staples as often at local stores, they felt little impact.

goodlife farm

Good Life Farm in New York grows vegetables, fruit and poultry – from the Groundswell Center website

Agricultural research and innovation in the 20th century produced bumper grain crops. Fewer farmers were needed to produce the same amount of grain. Over-production led to market crashes, jeopardizing farms across the nation. In 1949, congress approved the Agricultural Act, which established a policy of high, fixed-price supports and acreage allotments as a way to regulate production. In 1954, the Act was modified to introduce flexible price supports to commodity programs and then, in 1965, it was revised to provide new income support payments in combination with reduced price supports and continued supply controls.

Price supports and government assisted crop insurance have enabled farmers to rely on one crop as a farm’s source of income. Farmers have moved away from the model of diversity as a key to sustainability. However, government assisted “competitive advantage” may not survive, particularly as trade agreements may render government benefit programs for farmers illegal. Diversity will be a key to sustainability.



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Food security and food safety with locally sourced food

USDA defines food security for a household as “access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” However, food security not only has food access and affordability components, it can be jeopardized by natural and man-made disasters. . .

old farmerAmericans are known for certain cultural traits such as independence, hard-work, inventiveness, and perseverance. The homesteading movement and beginning farmer movement harken back to the notion of being independent and feeding ourselves and our own communities.

Some have found it preposterous that our food is being off-shored or grown here, processed in China, and returned here for sale. The American psyche revolts at the notion that we have to rely on another country for our own food.

There are practical reasons why regions should be planning for more food independence, due to natural and made-made disasters. After 9-11, transportation systems shut down and store shelves emptied. There was speculation as to how many days it would be before major cities would run out of food.

Disruption of transportation and commerce was not the only type of attack considered by the terrorists. On November 19, 2003, Senator Susan Collins of Maine convened a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs on “Agroterrorism: the Threat to America’s Breadbasket.” In her introductory remarks,  she reported that “Hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents recovered from the al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan early last year are a strong indication that terrorists recognize that our agriculture and food industry provides tempting targets.”

Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey noted that “Unfortunately, our food chain from lautenbergproduction to processing to distribution and consumption presents an all too easy target for those who want to harm America, and few targets have the impact that one could conceive as that coming from our food supply, something unknown that takes time to discover and then the time involved in reaching a large group of people in a given area, possibly a huge group if things go as one could imagine.” It would appear that if all of our food production was dispersed in small and medium farms, then the risk of attack on food systems would be lower.

Civil Eats story about Vermont's leadership in the local food movement

Civil Eats story about Vermont’s leadership in the local food movement

Another risk to food security lies in the fact that a majority of U.S. fruits and vegetables is grown in a region that has endured four years of drought and long term projections predict continued dry periods for the rest of the 21st century. Already we have seen the U.S. become more dependent on fruits and vegetables from foreign sources. Over 20% of fresh vegetables and over 50% of all fresh fruits are imported and less than 1%  is actually sampled for food safety compliance.

Due to modern food distribution systems and land use policies in the U.S., it is easier for a tomato from Mexico to reach grocery store shelves than a tomato from nearby farm communities. As reported by Civil Eats, Laurie Ristino, Vermont Law School’s director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, says that current law is heavily bent toward the industrialized food system. Vermont has already made great progress at breaking down the barriers to a “relocalized” food system.

In Maryland, if we level the playing field for local farmers, we can stimulate the local economy, have fresher, tastier food and build in a measure of food security and food safety protection against natural and man-made food disasters. We can start by:

  • supporting local farmers markets,
  • helping farmers gain access to food distribution systems and institutions,
  • making sure that our local and state regulations permit retail sales and allow for value-added production. and
  • including local food production in our comprehensive plans and action strategies.




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Finding a place to grow — on leased land in Maryland


The Piedmont Environmental Council recently released a publication entitled Finding a Place to Grow: How the Next Generation is Gaining Access to Farmland. It consists of a series of stories written by Whitney Pipkin about beginning farmers in Virginia who are farming successfully on leased land.

Maryland farmers are making their own inspiring stories about producing food for the region on leased land. For many reasons, the odds have been stacked against those who lease farmland, yet they seem to persevere. Hands down, the greatest challenge for beginning farmers (those raised on a farm and those who were not) is access to land.

There is nothing new about leased farmland in Maryland or Virginia. In fact, roughly 64% of all Maryland farmland is leased. What is new is that these are not grain farmers. These are vegetable and livestock farmers who have different leasing needs and challenges than grain farmers. They need access to water for their crops and/or livestock. They need fencing to keep their critters in or other critters out. They need housing on the land or nearby to watch over their crops or flocks. They need a viable market nearby.

These farmers are like the farmers of the  first half of the 20th century who sold directly to consumers. By the end of the 20th century, farmers had dropped out of direct sales as major food chains took control of the U.S. food system.  Some farmers scaled up to wholesale operations and others dropped out of farming all together.

Are today’s farmers who sell direct to consumers likely to endure the same fate? Not necessarily.


Primaterra Farm and CSA, a new farm on leased land in Prince George’s County – www.primaterrafarm.com

What has changed is that consumers want to know their farmers and how they grow their food. The internet is giving farmers the ability to communicate to consumers in a way that levels the marketing field somewhat. And we know more about the soil and how to tease more production from the land with lower input costs, through cover crops, compost, mulch etc.

Leasing land is a practical option for both land owner and farmer. The land owners receive agriculture use assessment for their land, which reduces their tax burden. The farmers avoid the capital costs and/or mortgage burden of buying land and that allows them to invest more into their farm.

Of course the devil is in the details as to whether the owner and the farmer can develop a productive, compatible relationship. On the evening of May 11th, the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Agriculture Law Education Initiative is hosting a farmland leasing webinar.  I will be addressing issues such as finding land to lease and determining if the soils, zoning, and other restrictions will permit a farmer to operate as he/she wishes. Paul Georinger will cover recommended lease documents, average lease rates, and Maryland case law concerning leases. Participants will be able to post questions.

You can also see the first leasing webinar held May 4th, by clicking on Lease Agreements and scrolling down to webinars. The May 11th webinar will be posted at the same location a few days after the event.

Leasing farmland can be a great way for farmers to get started. These webinars provide information to help make that happen.



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Can Maryland be food self-sufficient?


Lexington Market in Baltimore City. Library of Congress

As recently as 70 years ago, Maryland was virtually food self-sufficient, with local farmers providing nearly all the food staples. Since then, modern agriculture practices, food business models, and improved transportation systems have reduced food prices and provided a much wider variety of fruits and vegetables and processed goods in supermarkets. Trade agreements allowed tariff free imports to lower prices and increase variety even more. For a number of reasons, Maryland farms (and East Coast farms in general) have not been able to compete in a number of food products and acres of those products decreased dramatically by the end of the 20th century.

However, in the last few decades a new trend has emerged. Alarmed about loss of farmland in their areas and wanting to know more about how their food is raised, a growing number of consumers began to seek out local food. Farmers markets, CSAs and food and drink festivals have piqued interest. In Maryland, a logical question is how many customers could Maryland farmers supply? Can we ever be food self-sufficient today?

New Report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

New Report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

A new study out of  the Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future begins to answer that question by looking into what food is produced in Maryland and what its 6 million residents may be consuming. At the same time, it cautions that “this comparison is not meant to advocate that the entire state could or should feed its entire population based solely on what it grows within its own borders. Rather this can help create a stronger connection between the local and regional food movements, the foods we choose to buy and eat, and agriculture within the state and region.”

Some findings:

  • Maryland farmers produce more than enough chicken, lima beans, and watermelon to meet Maryland consumer demands.
  • Maryland farmers produce 67% of the spinach demand, 57% of the sweet corn demand, 46% of the egg demand, 28% of the milk demand and 26% of the beef demands.
  • Potatoes are the most popular vegetable and Maryland farmers meet 9% of that demand
  • Tomatoes are the 9th most popular food product on Maryland farms yet we produce only 2.14% of the population’s demand.
  • Maryland farmers produce about 2.8 billion pounds of corn for grain, a lot of which is used for livestock feed, seed, and industrial uses.

Of course, watermelons and lima beans are only produced for a few months and demand for these products (and other perishable products) is year around. In 1940, consumers’ diets were more attuned to the growing season. Now they expect strawberries in January. However, milk and meats are produced year around. Grains can be stored and many greens (and even tomatoes) can be grown year around in high tunnels or greenhouses. Their commercial viability depends price. Price is a factor, but 70% of U.S. residents say that they would pay at least 5% more for locally sourced food.

Maryland is not close to being food self-sufficient, nor will we ever be totally food self-sufficient as long as we are consuming a significant amount of food from tropical plants such as coffee, bananas, oranges, etc. Total food self-sufficiency was not the purpose of the Johns Hopkins report or this blog.

The point is that Maryland does grow an amazing amount of food and can grow more. There are challenges in rebuilding the quantity of food that grows well in this climate, including labor, regulations, aggregation and distribution of food to institutions, etc. but if residents in Maryland want more local food, let’s test their resolve. Maryland’s agriculture industry and our state economy will benefit from the effort!




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All are fed at the farm

f4h.blessing.scene.Written by Priscilla Wentworth and Greg Bowen

Serenity Farm in Charles County should no longer exist. Mid-sized farms in the U.S. have been disappearing at a dramatic rate, as ag operations have continued to scale up to compete in the global markets. In fact, this farm has struggled as farm profits continued to decline in the last few decades.

Ironically, the farm is on the rebound now due to a nonprofit called Farming 4 Hunger,

F4H Founder with former and current participants in DOC's work release program

F4H Founder, Bernie Fowler (behind mic), with former and current participants in DOC’s pre-release program

which had its second Annual Blessing of the Farm event on Saturday. In the last three years, the farm has raised over 3 million pounds of produce that were donated to those in need. The farmers are paid to raise the food and MD Department of Correction (DOC) pre-release participants and hundreds of volunteers harvest it.

Most of the produce raised stays right in Southern Maryland – feeding people in need. But the slogan “All are fed at the farm” goes beyond food. Farming 4 Hunger is now connecting with 27 other farmers. Synergy and profitability for farmers are building the local economy. And lives are changing too.

Farming 4 Hunger’s Founder Bernie Fowler is proud of his relationship with the men from DOC who are at the end of serving their time and want to give back for what they’ve taken from society. Graduates of the program often find jobs in the community and many return to volunteer and share their stories.

f4h.blessing.speechWhen 140 people of different religions and  cultures come out to Farming 4 Hunger to bless the fields for the upcoming growing season to feed people in need fresh vegetables- that is community. Growing food is important but growing food together (and ultimately growing together) is what makes it all worthwhile.

Family farms of all sizes are benefiting from the local food movement. People are learning that food from farms in their region is not only is fresher and tastier, it creates jobs, builds community and it can even change lives. Serenity Farm, with the help of Farming 4 Hunger, is a community farm. As the nonprofit’s website says, “We welcome you to come back time and time again to serve, educate, share, fellowship, rejoice, laugh and learn.”





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