Central Md. women in ag looking past horizons

Staff Writer

WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. (April 5, 2016) — ”Broaden Your Farm Horizon” was the theme of the 2016 Central Maryland Women in Agriculture Forum at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
Speakers addressed topics of agriculture advocacy, farm and food safety and farming through multiple generations.
On food safety, Deanna Baldwin of the Maryland Department of Agriculture said the federal Food Safety Modernization Act deals mainly with microbial contamination, noting that the new legislation gives MDA authority for recalls. She also explained that seafood and juice are exempted.
Dr. Nicole Fiorellino, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Maryland, discussed how she, a city girl, became an advocate for agriculture and why she is so passionate about it.
“You don’t have to be a farmer to be an advocate for agriculture,” she said, urging her audience to do the same.
“Be honest with yourself and be you,” she added. “Honesty is the best policy.”
She told the audience to seek constantly more information and research multiple sources.
“Find out who you wish to emulate, build a relationship, ask for advice and listen,” she said. “Use every opportunity for education. Learn from specialists. Share even with those who don’t share your views. Educate the public, be calm and respectful, but be enthusiastic but not too strong.”
She also told the audience to share creativity and recommend unbiased sources of information.
“And part of sharing information is making sure your source is good.”
Fiorellino also recommended working with MDA, NRCS, Farm Credit, and the University of Maryland, and others, in their advocacy.
“Get involved. Join non-ag organizations and take leadership positions. Lobby for and against bills that effect you but get the facts first. Always be honest, truthful and be yourself,” Fiorellino said.
John Frank and Michael Gebhart of the consulting firm JSR Star Services focused on farm safety.
“Always have a safety plan and emergency action plan. Emergencies happen,” Frank said.
He spoke about the greater frequency of accidents to those on the farm under fourteen years of age, and also natural disasters like tornados and blizzards, and the importance of having records available to assist responders.
Three members of the Watson family, Shirley Watson, Susan Watson Hardy and Shelby Watson Hampton talked about how their Robin Hill Farm changed over generations to stay viable.
The Watson farm has been in the family for 50 years when Russell Watson started growing tobacco to supplement his income as a waterman.
They spoke about the challenges a large family faces when farming together and how they handled them by adapting their farming focus.
In 1960 they had 500 head of swine and the first health-approved swine herd in the United States.
After discussion among family, the next move was growing trees, starting with Christmas trees and then adding ornamental shade trees. In 1970, they became the first agri-tourism farm in Prince George’s County.
The farm and individual members have garnered various honors including 2002 Small Business of the Year in Prince George’s County, and in 2003, the farm was inducted into the Governor’s Agriculture Hall of Fame.
After the death of Russel in 2005, the family realized they needed a plan.
Shirley handed over the farm to her daughter Susan and they decided to plant a vineyard.
They brought in professionals to help them with their plans and planted vines, converting their tobacco planter to plant grape vines. They now produce five different varieties  have converted a barn to hold weddings and special events and are looking forward to opening a farm winery in fall of 2017.
Their advice in a large family operation includes having a good accountant, a good lawyer and good insurance, understanding, patience and empathy for one another.
“Everything goes through Mom,” Susan said. “She is in charge. The family needs to be respectful, communicate, understand and have a business plan. You need to decide what you want to do, why, and how you will do it, and have clear and consistent communication. Ninety-nine percent of misunderstandings are the result of miscommunication.”
The final speaker, Kellie Boles of  Loudon County Economic Development in Virginia, spoke about building a brand out of your business and customer loyalty.
“Brand is an image in the consumer’s mind,” Boles said. “It is partly shaped by customer experiences. It’s your brand. Engage your brand where no one else is, like social media, for instance,” she told the group.
“You are your brand. Give people what they expect,” she added. “Be nice,” she said, siting the result of poor customer experience.
“Your brand is about who you are.”