Food hub plan pulled back for revision, advisory group

Senior Editor

EASTON, Md. (Jan. 6, 2015) — Is a 40-acre farm field on the outskirts of Easton the right spot for a proposed food hub, a receiving and distribution center for agricultural products?
Are there enough “stakeholders,” farmers on the Eastern Shore and into Delaware, willing to sign on to service the hub whose focus will be on organic production?
And, oh yes, there’s the matter of how much the food hub developers are willing to pay the Town of Easton as rent for the use of the town-owned tract.
On Dec. 15, the Easton Economic Development Corporation withdrew its request for formal consideration of the food hub proposal to allow it time to fine-tune its development  plan, “a more plausible buiness model,” according to Herb Miller, chairman and CEO of the EEDC.
Tracy Ward, executive director of the two-year-old town agency,  acknowledged that the hub proposal had sparked “a lot of controversy,” particularly in the agricultural community and that there was work to be done on explaining to producers what the proposed facility is, how it  would work and the opportunities it offers to its stakeholders.
Ward said, the EEDC will hold a series of meetings in February, staged to reach the ag community in Maryland’s nine Eastern Shore counties and into Delaware.
Joining the agency for those meetings will be Cleo Braver of Easton, a retired attorney and now avid and ardent organic farmer at Cottingham Farm, near Easton.
Braver, who has become the principal spokesperson for the hub,  was a major supporter of outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley and had arranged, in the closing days of his administration,  to rent a farm in Kent County for $1, after the state purchased under it.
That plan was squashed by the state’s Board of Public Works.
Still, the hub reportedly has been promised two state grants totaling $1 million if and when it’s ready to go.
As part of its efforts to sharpen and focus the hub’s  development plan, the EEDC is in the process of appointing an advisory committe.
Already agreeing to serve, Ward said, are John Trax,  a farmer and member of the Talbot County Extension Advisory Committee; Wen Fei Uva, a former community development specialist; and John Hall, retired Kent  County Extension agent who patched together a group of farmers trading together as Chesapeake Fields  and growing tofu soybeans for export to the Far East.
Ward also acknowledged that other sites for the hub could come under consideration as the fine-tuning of the business plan continues.
She mentioned the rent which the town would assess on the Mistletoe Farm property — $12,000 a year with an  increase of 1.5 percent each year — and commented that EEDC was “evaluating all of our opportunities.”
In that effort, Ward continued,  EEDC may be “broadening our search … looking at other sites.”
Ward said a revised development plan for the hub would not be available until “March or April.”