The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC) is pleased to announce new Director, Shelby Watson-Hampton. Shelby is a Southern Maryland farmer, an Agricultural Marketing Specialist, and an active member of the Maryland farming community. In her previous position at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, she worked in the Marketing Department promoting and marketing Maryland products, farmers, and farmers markets, as well as running the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
Shelby is an active member of many agricultural associations and committees. She also farms on her family farm in Brandywine, Maryland, where they grow wine grapes and host private events in their barn venue. Shelby is a 2007 graduate of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and a 2015 Graduate Fellow of the LEAD Maryland Class VIII.
When asked about her new position, she replied, “I am so honored, grateful, and excited to have this opportunity to work for the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. As Director, my mission will be to work towards fostering a truly cohesive farming community in Southern Maryland, which brings out the best in all farmers and all production types. We need every farm we have; large, small, conventional, organic, traditional, niche, agritourism and value-added. It takes all agricultural types to have a diverse and successful farming economy.”
“As an individual with family farms in both Prince George’s and Charles Counties, ties to the Southern Maryland farming community across all five counties, and an affinity for promoting an inclusive and cooperative atmosphere, I will strive to continue and to expand the tradition of a strong and prosperous farming community in Southern Maryland.”
Shelby joins SMADC with a wealth of experience and commitment to the farming community in Southern Maryland. The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland (TCCSMD) board, and the SMADC board and staff welcome Shelby as the newest manager of our Economic Development team. Shelby will start in her new position on March 6, 2017.
Food hub workshop yields a bountiful crop of ideas
Next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wallace Center, Winrock International knows more about food hubs than any other organization in the country. One program of the Center is the National Good Food Network which regularly holds webinars about food hubs. The USDA often supports the Wallace Center in its research and workshops on food hubs.
As expected, the Wallace Center provided a plethora of information about food hubs. However, the focus of the workshop was a facilitated discussion about what works and what doesn’t and participants had the opportunity to ask the tough questions.
Attendees were excited to be able to discuss food hub formation with Haile Johnston, co-founder of Common Market, a non-profit located in Philadelphia. It operates in the black. This year, they expect to sell $3 million in food. His hope is to enable new food hubs to succeed in half the time and with half the problems that new food hubs typically face.
Food hubs are often considered as more than just aggregators and distributors of food. The good ones create a food chain that adds value to participants at every stage. Haile began the discussion with a situation that occurred at the beginning of Common’s Market’s formation. They were at an auction to purchase apples to be distributed to those who could not afford fresh, healthy food. They were thrilled that the auction price was only $4.50 for a bushel of apples and they bought a number of bushels that day. Afterward, they reflected that they may be helping those in need of healthy food, but it was at the expense of farmers who would not earn a living with those prices. They resolved that their non-profit would operate in a fashion that would help producers as well as consumers of all income levels.
From the beginning, Common Market’s market strategy was to sell primarily to the institutional sector, because they didn’t see the competition at that level with the small operations. The largest segment of their sales is to schools (90), hospitals (20), elder cares facilities and cooperatives. They buy from 85 farmers with a very diverse product line, including turkeys, eggs, yogurt, chicken, apples and vegetables. They do not process yet, though they plan to eventually.
They began with one leased truck and now own a fleet of five refrigerated box trucks. All their food is farmer identified. Seventy-five percent of the food comes from within 80 miles of their non-profit and all of it comes from within 200 miles. Meat and eggs are key components. They operate on a 30% blended mark-up. Three times a week they send out an email to farmers with changing prices. They do some speculative buying but 95% of all perishable product is pre-sold.
They see advantages to technology but they also see the advantages to human interaction. Their buyers are able to gauge producers’ and distributors’ issues and concerns as they negotiate deals. Their truck drivers get to know both the farmers and the buyers so that they can monitor and build relationships.
A point that Haile came back to numerous times is that “Relationships are paramount across the food chain!” That was a notion that resonated with attendees.
Sometimes, farm profitability is just one value-added step away. Lots of farmers have the great ideas, but they lack the support to get there.
On February 5th, the Maryland Agricultural Marketing Professionals (AMPs) met to discuss how to help farmers can take their products to the next level and I got to sit in. We heard from Jeff Williams, Program Specialist at Rural Business-Cooperative Service (Jeff.Williams2@de.usda.gov) and he filled us in on USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant. Last year, Maryland farmers did well, garnering $2 million out of $21 million in grant money available across the U.S. However, ten good Maryland farms were not successful, so Jeff advised the AMPs what farmers should know to improve their chance of success.
He said that the 50 page application may seem daunting but it is intended to provide all the necessary information and advice to compete. Two of the main reasons for failure are requesting non-eligible funds (clearly identified in the application) and weak or incomplete applications and budgets. There is a 50% local match, but there are many ways to meet that requirement.
One option is to seek assistance from the Maryland Agricultural & Resource Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO).
Steve McHenry, Executive Director of MARBIDCO, was also a presenter at the AMPs meeting and he goes out of his way to support farmers. For example the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant application notice and deadline varies each year. To assist Maryland farmers who may want to use MARBIDCO funds as a match, he informs farmers that his deadline is 2-weeks prior to the federal deadline, whenever that is. That helps the farmers put together a good draft application (which Jeff Williams is willing to review ahead of time) while he and his staff have time to review the application for a possible MARBIDCO match.
MARBIDCO helps farmers stepping up to value-added in three other ways.
1. Local government Ag/RBI cost share programs. Applications for this program must be submitted by a county or regional economic development director or an agricultural marketing specialist.
2. Maryland Urban Agriculture Commercial Lending Incentive Grants (in municipalities). It is offered with the financial support of Farm Credit and is designed to meet the financing needs of beginning urban farmers by providing an incentive for them to seek commercial lender financing for the development of their agricultural enterprises. The maximum amount of the grant is $7,500.
3. Maryland Value-Added Producer Grants. Capital asset-type projects designed to help farmers, forest product operations, and seafood processors to expand or diversify their business operations.
An announcement for the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant is expected in the next couple of months and you can find out more about MARBIDCO’s grants on it’s website. Value-added dreamers, sharpen your pencils!
Saving family farms in Maryland – the right regulatory environment
This blog is one of a series on saving family farms in Maryland. In my last post, I covered some of the typical infrastructure needs of beginning farmers. In this post, I discuss possible regulatory challenges for new agricultural entrepreneurs.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when Maryland’s health and zoning regulations were first adopted, direct sales of farm products, value-added farm products and agri-tourism uses (such as farm weddings, corn mazes, and wine tastings) were not a significant part of the agricultural landscape and regulations were not written to allow them. The local food movement has created many new opportunities for farmers, but some counties have not updated their regulations to specifically allow the new uses.
Before you sign on the dotted line for leasing or purchasing a farm, I recommend that you visit our Zoning Tutorial, which describes the reasons for regulations, how they relate to adopted plans, and who to contact with questions and for clarifications. There are also links to county zoning regulations that are posted on the web.
To dispel any hope of simplicity, no county zoning regulations are the same. Each is patterned to address plan goals, citizen concerns, etc. The names of zoning districts differ, the definitions differ, and the review processes differ. In addition to verifying that their farm uses are allowed by zoning, farmers should ask their attorney if there are any preservation or conservation easements that would restrict their farming activities.
Even if they pass these hurdles, farmers can face tough, expensive legal challenges if they propose a farm project that is perceived by neighbors to have an adverse impact on the use of their properties. A case in point is the Bellevale Farms Inc., an organic dairy farm on 199 acres in the Long Green Valley area of Baltimore County. The Long Green Valley Association had sued when the dairy sought and received approval to construct a creamery.
When a farmer is ready to undertake a new project, it pays to visit the local permit offices. I put together a simple table of the types of permits that may be needed and the agencies that may be involved.
Fortunately, there are people to help. At the Beginning Farmer Success website, they have collected contact information by county. You may also want to see if there is an Agricultural Marketing Professional in your county to help guide you through the permitting process.
Some counties have made great progress in clarifying zoning regulations that apply to
farm enterprises. Earlier this year, I wrote about Montgomery County’s new zoning ordinance which allows agricultural uses in practically every part of the county, scaled to the development in each particular zone. I think that Calvert County does a good job of allowing a wide variety of agricultural uses in its agriculture districts (full disclosure, I helped to write it). Farm entrepreneurs can find farm use definitions, the zones where the use is allowed and the conditions that will be imposed.
More can be done if we are to save family farms in Maryland. I just read an article from The Atlantic CITYLAB about how a Denver suburb actively encourages urban farming and has streamlined its regulations. As the article states, they are experiencing an “agricultural renaissance.”
Lets hope that we are on the cusp of the same! Next week, gaining level access to markets.
Last week, I got to meet a group of Agricultural Marketing Professionals (AMPs) and to follow them on part of their Southern Maryland tour of successful agricultural marketing ventures. I believe that AMPs are essential to the local food movement because of the history and timing of the development of zoning and health regulations in the U.S.
Planning and zoning departments and local health departments did not exist as recently as one hundred years ago. The need for zoning and food health inspectors was a result of the Industrial Revolution, which radically changed land use in America and changed what we ate and the way food was prepared.
In agrarian societies of the past, there was little need for zoning or health regulations. All the land uses were similar and the farmers produced, processed and consumed their own food or purchased food from those they knew and trusted. The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Large factories sprung up next to residential areas, commercial businesses created congestion and spilled out onto travel ways. Workers drawn to industry jobs moved to urban centers. Middle and upper-class families sought safer, quieter neighborhoods out in the countryside, creating sprawl. Zoning regulations were developed to promote health, safety and welfare as development occurred.
As to food safety issues, industries began producing chemicals and additives for food to increase shelf life and appeal for processed foods being sold to families who no longer had time to produce and process their own food. Consumer deaths and consumer fraud due to improper food adulterations resulted in the development of the 1906 US Pure Food and Drug Act and eventually the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which provided specific authority for factory inspections and established food standards.
According to a report of the Maryland Association of Health Officers, the first local health department in Maryland was created in 1922 and all counties had local departments by 1934. Enforcement of processed food inspections and food handling was eventually handed down to the local health departments which operate somewhat autonomously.
At the time that county planning and zoning departments and local health departments were being established across the country, locally sourced food was being replaced by brilliantly packaged and marketed food products. Highly processed breads, margarine, cheese spreads and cake mixes replaced local staples and were prepared for long shelf life. There was little need for local regulations to address small-scale locally sourced products. They no longer existed.
When the local food movement appeared in the last few decades, the production of value-added items on a farm was not allowed by zoning regulations in most jurisdictions. If they were allowed, then their production was subject to health department standards intended for large-scale factory processing.
A few proactive counties began to hire AMPs to assist farmers in the process of developing value-added production, such as acidified foods, creameries and wineries. Gradually, ag entrepreneurs have been able to re-establish local resource-based farm enterprises. Last week’s AMPs farm tour provided witness to the persistence of the farmers and/or the value of the the AMPs.
I joined the tour briefly on Wednesday to visit Montpelier Farms in Upper Marlboro and discuss zoning and health regulations with the AMPs. Mike and Adrianne Dunn opened their agritourism business in 2008 to provide an outlet for farm products and to give the region’s residents an opportunity to get out on a farm and learn about agriculture. The AMPs and the Dunns discussed the challenges of introducing uses like corn mazes and on-farm events when county regulations don’t address newly emerging uses.
Thursday morning, I rejoined the group to learn the latest about Swann Farms in Northern Calvert County. It has become one of the largest wholesale vegetable and fruit operations in the region. Joe-Sam Swann discussed the emerging trends in the sale of fresh vegetables and fruits and the growing interest in pick-your-own. He also mentioned the highly successful North Beach Farmers Market, where they sell their products. He noted that market was one of the first in the state to allow the sale of local wine.
My next stop was Chesapeake’s Bounty where Will Kreamer has created a marketing niche that is essential for farmers and watermen. His philosophy is sustainable, ecological and hyperlocal. He tries to provide his customers with the best sustainably raised meats, vegetables, fruits and plants that come from the closest farm sources. Likewise, the seafood that he sells comes from Maryland waters in compliance with regulations intended to sustain the harvest for area watermen.
Another exciting new farming trend is emerging from the waters. As many are aware, the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has been at less than 1% of historic levels. In recent years, Maryland “oyster farmers” have been raising triploid oysters in cages on the river bottoms with the help and support of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and, in some cases, the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO). We visited Hollywood Oyster Company in St. Mary’s County where the team is growing a million oysters this year and as many as 3 million next year.
These are just a few of the exciting projects that the AMPs visited. Each of these businesses has had to deal with zoning and health department issues. Many have benefited from an AMP to help facilitate the development of the business. All of the businesses have created jobs, helped to diversify our local food options and have improved our food security. A mighty good story in the making!