Calvert County farmers pushing for ag marketer

Staff Writer

PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. (June 16, 2015) — It’s been a common refrain in Calvert County’s agricultural community for some time.
We need an ag marketer.
Susie Hance-Wells, the county’s Farm Bureau president, said she knows this all too well.
She doesn’t just see someone in an office buying ad space for local farmers’ markets, although that’s part of it. She sees millions of dollars in grants.
She sees an advocate for farmers in front of state officials and the board of county commissioners.
“I think the timing is what makes it critical. Calvert County is on the verge of having an ag explosion as far as being able to market to consumers,” Hance-Wells said. “People really care about their food supply and where it’s coming from and how it’s raised. We have the farmland here to do it, we have the capabilities to do it.”
In short, she said she sees someone like Donna Sasscer, St. Mary’s County’s agricultural marketer since 1990.
St. Mary’s, which borders Calvert County to the south, has three farmers’ markets, Sasscer said. One, occupied by primarily Amish vendors, pulls in close to $1 million in sales per year.
The other two make between $100,000 and $200,000, she said.
Sasscer said she couldn’t put a number on how much money she’s brought into the county in the name of agriculture since she started, but it’s certainly in the millions — more than eclipsing the total cost of her employment over the last two and a half decades.
“We’re an office of two,” she said of herself and her assistant. “We kind of feel like we help the county one person at a time.”
Sasscer said she’s helped Amish growers get certified to make acidified foods such as pickles and beets. She’s helped other farmers get their on-farm food processors license. She’s helped get grants to start wineries and farmers’ markets.
“St. Mary’s does it very well,” Hance-Wells said. “Farmers as a rule are not good marketers. They’re great at raising their product.”
On the Eastern Shore, that’s not as big of an issue, where many growers sell to large corporate buyers.
Closer to cities, however, the consumer market grows in size and importance.
Sasscer’s biggest impact may be on the revenue side. Before she started work in St. Mary’s, the county was foregoing its agriculture transfer tax dollars, which were then deposited in state coffers.
Sasscer said she got the county certified to take the money, which has amounted to millions and gone toward agricultural preservation. She also worked with the U.S. Navy to get money for ag land preservation around Naval Air Station Patuxent River that prevents encroachment on the base, which would make it more vulnerable to closure.
“While we want to preserve land, we also want to keep the farmer profitable,” she said.
When asked how Calvert County might benefit from an ag marketer, she said she knows some county roadside farm stands have been assessed as commercial rather than agricultural, which is less costly. An ag marketer could work to change that.
“I guess overall it would be to help farmers become more profitable and in turn that’s more tax dollars for Calvert County,” Sasscer said. “It would help to preserve their quality of life, rural character.”
Hance-Wells said she went before the board of county commissioners in February and asked them to budget an ag marketer.
But the board recently passed a $239 million budget, a decrease from last year, to make up for a more than $4 million dip in revenues.
Hance-Wells said she didn’t expect the board to approve a new position with such a relatively grim budgetary outlook, but she hopes it might be possible in the future.
After all, most of the counties around Calvert with close proximity to Washington have one: Charles, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel for instance. She said she’s reminded of everything Sasscer has done to win grants and other money.
“By bringing in outside money, you’re not having to bend on the county budget,” Hance-Wells said.
It could be a possibility in the future, said board President Steve Weems, who said he comes from a multi-generational family of tobacco farmers.
“We’re going to take it under advisement and seriously look at the possibility in light of the food-to-table movement,” he said. “For us, after the tobacco buyout, it sort of was a gutshot. But we’re seeing a resurgence in young farmers here, and we’re going to seriously look at the possibility in the future.”
Hance-Wells said she’s committed to make sure the board does.
“We’re not going to let up on this,” she said. “According to the 2012 Census, we increased tremendously in our sales in the county directly to consumers. The movement has already started and by having a marketing specialist to help with these things, I think we can go a lot further and increase the retail sales considerably.”