SMADC seeking public input during transition

AFP Correspondent

Prince Frederick, Md. (Sept. 13, 2016) — The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission held a public forum Wednesday evening to seek input from farmers about the future of the organization.
The meeting comes as the commission is going through a state of transition.
In June, the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland, which oversees SMADC, made a controversial decision to sever ties with Executive Director, Christine Bergmark, who had been with the commission since its inception.
The commission’s chairman, Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, said the board was looking forward.
“If you look around Southern Maryland, you’ll see agriculture is alive and well. We’ve transitioned away from tobacco. At our last board meeting, we took a look at where we’ve been, what our programs are and how we want to move forward,” Middleton said in his introduction.
SMADC was established in 2000 to administer the tobacco buyout. Funding comes to the organization through the Maryland legislature from the Cigarette Restitution Fund.
The final payments to farmers who took the buyout were made in 2015.
In addition to the tobacco buyout payments, SMADC has provided money to farmers in the area for land preservation and assistance in transitioning to other agricultural enterprises through grant money, workshops and other programs.
Nearly two dozen individuals gave testimony to the Commission on Wednesday evening at the College of Southern Maryland in Prince Frederick.
A common theme was that better communication and outreach were needed.
Chip Bowling, a Charles County farmer and President of the National Corn Growers Association admitted that he didn’t know much about SMADC or the people it has helped.
“This is the best kept program that people haven’t heard about,” Bowling said. “I’d like to see you promote the Commission better in the future. Because if we don’t talk about this together, we will lose the battle.”
Several members of the Amish community were present and praised the Commission for their assistance in helping to establish the Clover Hill Dairy in Mechanicsville.
Jacob Fisher said SMADC was instrumental in helping the Amish community communicate with the state and work through regulatory issues.
“Without [their] help, it would have been hard,” Fisher said.
Not all farmers shared the same sentiment, though. Catherine Hamilton of Spider Hall Farm in Calvert County said she has been turned away by SMADC multiple times.
“I haven’t had good luck with SMADC,” said Hamilton, a seventh generation farmer. “I feel like people who don’t have the background or spark I have are getting the assistance that I’m not getting. There’s no help for me, who is supposed to be the future of agriculture.”
Several farmers who spoke said SMADC hasn’t done enough to help all types of agriculture.
Middleton said a key take away from the meeting for him was that the Commission needs to do better with communication and coordination.
“Agriculture has such a small voice anyway and when it’s divided, it becomes even smaller. We need to put a lot of effort into outreach. That is probably the most important role for SMADC moving forward,” Middleton said.
Profitability of farms was another hot topic at the forum.
Delegate Mark Fisher, who is the representative on the SMADC board for the Tri County Council of Southern Maryland, said he was motivated to take his position based on criticism he heard from constituents.
“The best way to preserve a farm is to make it profitable. I’m a big fan of helping people figure out how to make money. Because if [a farm] makes money, it will continue and be passed on to the next generation,” Delegate Fisher said.
Susie Hance Wells, a Calvert County farmer and president of the Calvert County Farm Bureau, echoed these comments.
“If you can’t keep agriculture a sustainable industry, land preservation doesn’t do much good. We need to be louder about SMADC’s accomplishments and what farmers in this area have to offer their neighbors,” said Wells.
Mary Morgan Hubbard of Eco City Farms defended non-profit enterprises. Her farm received a grant from SMADC to turn a shipping container into a commercial kitchen.
“A non-profit’s purpose is to benefit a community. It doesn’t mean we don’t make money. The difference is who the profits go to,” Hubbard said.
Other issues raised were the need for more resources for new and beginning farmers, a look into facilitating cannabis production and better ties to area tourism.
Scott Sanders of Tobacco Barn Distillery in St. Mary’s County urged the board to look at what other states are doing.
“We need to create opportunities across the spectrum [for value added agriculture] and use a new media approach that looks beyond the [guide] books,” Sanders said.
Commission member Delegate Sally Jameson said SMADC has had to face a lot of challenges since it’s inception but overall has been a positive influence for agriculture.
“I personally think SMADC has done a great job in supporting agriculture. It’s important to remember that SMADC money is your money and we need to be very careful with how that money is spent,” Jameson said.
Middleton said that the Commission will hold off on replacing Bergmark’s position until a clear direction for the organization is established.
The much-anticipated Request for Proposals for the meat processing facility is also expected to come out within the next month.
Middleton said the project has been assumed by the Tri County Council. He said his hope is that a bid will be awarded by Christmas.