Written by Susan McQuilkin

In May 2012, at a meeting of the Southern Maryland Meats (SMM) livestock producers, Dr. Tom Hartsock, retired Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, spoke to the attentive audience of producers who had gathered to discuss ongoing initiatives to grow the SMM brand and address the complex challenges of establishing uniform quality standards for the newly incubated producer group.

Dr. Hartsock stressed the importance of staying ahead of consumer expectations and trends in the market place, and maintaining a consistent high quality meat product to ensure customer loyalty for the SMM brand in a competitive retail environment; “So, you can’t just take generic beef, pork, lamb, goat and chicken and label it as “special” and expect that to work for you long term; especially, when many of your customers are well-educated, discriminating shoppers who have the money to buy the best.”

In its 2009 Policy Choices Survey, the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center for Public Policy found that 77 percent of Marylanders want to buy products identified as having been grown by a Maryland farmer. State-wide promotions like the ‘Buy Local Challenge’ underwrite and remind consumers year round about the compelling health, economic and environmental reasons for buying local. As a result the demand for local products is continuing to increase and producers are currently enjoying the benefits of educated and aware consumers who go the extra mile, and in many instances are willing to spend a lot more to purchase local.

SMADC, together with Southern Maryland meat producer stakeholders created the SMM brand in response to the public demand for locally produced meats. A SMADC grant to purchase commercial-capacity freezer trailers has since fueled the growth of the retail meat market in the region, enabling livestock producers to satisfy state regulations for the transportation, storage and sale of local meats. Since 2010 SMM freezer trailers have hauled over 50,000 lbs of product for a total retail value of $241,000. The SMM program has now grown to 31 producers, many of whom are experiencing first hand their customers’ enthusiastic response to their products. One SMM producer reported over $20,000 gross sales during the first year of participation.

The Buy Local movement is firmly established. For meat producers the challenge going forward will be to maintain the high quality, safe, and sustainably raised products that have come to epitomize consumer expectations of ‘local’, and also meet the needs of a growing retail market which includes the general public, stores and restaurants. And recently, large institutions such as schools and hospitals have also expressed a keen desire to purchase SMM meats.

SMM producers are positioning themselves ahead of the curve in response to a new generation of discriminating consumers, while giving serious thought to the development of a quality ‘bench mark’ to ensure that their customers keep coming back. SMADC is also working with the group to expand supply and research potential for regional distribution models.

SMM is also evaluating other aspects of livestock production, including improved genetics, finely tuned nutrition, humane animal management and processing techniques which in combination have a significant role to play in developing a uniformly high quality product and an enhanced branding image – all of which will become increasingly important in the continuing evolution of what matters to consumers when they choose to ‘buy local’.

Looking ahead SMADC and SMM are actively sharing ideas for the future development of Southern Maryland’s local meats industry and have sponsored a series of educational opportunities for the benefit of the broader livestock community. Earlier this month Dr. Tom Hartsock and Dr. Nelson Escobar, UME, presented a joint workshop on meat quality issues (for beef, hogs, sheep and goat producers) and upcoming on December 10, SMADC will host a follow-up workshop specific to marketing farm-raised meats. In the new year, the SMM Steering Committee will also be organizing ‘field trips’ to learn from progressive producer farms which focus on the development of production and marketing strategies for small operations, and tours to regional slaughter facilities. To learn more about SMM or join the initiatve, visit our FarmLINK website for more details.