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Ag landscape becomes focus of Maryland Grow summit
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
STEVENSVILLE, Md. (Dec. 13, 2016) — Whether it’s malting barley for beer or adding lavender scents to lotion, Maryland farms are finding more ways to make money by transforming what they grow and raise.
That was the focus of the first Maryland Grow Summit hosted Dec. 1 by the Rural Maryland Council and Grow Maryland, a new nonprofit, at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club. The nonprofit’s work extends beyond the conference to promote and support value-added agriculture producers, agri-tourism operations and small food businesses in the state.
Presenters at the conference said they see these types of businesses as key to preserving farmland and farming livelihoods in the increasingly fragmented landscapes of Maryland’s rural and suburban counties.
Joe Tassone, manager of geospatial and data analysis in Maryland’s Department of Planning, shared the findings of a report he recently released with the American Farmland Trust and other organizations about the present state and future of agriculture in the region.
“The only commodity-scale game that we’re in at this time is poultry and the grains and soybeans that feed them,” Tassone said, noting, in particular, the loss of livestock and forestry-based industries as the land has been broken up by development. “Coming behind them are horticulture and greenhouse (industries) taking advantage of the population growth that has taken out larger agriculture.”
The biggest opportunities for growth in the farming sector, Tassone said, are in the emerging markets of direct marketing and value-added agriculture.
From 2002-2012, Tassone said direct sales of farm products in the state tripled, and have likely grown since the last data points were collected.
Kevin Atticks founded Grow & Fortify to help promote the value-added industry with a focus on beer, wine and spirits.
The Baltimore Metropolitan Council recently asked his group to survey the state of industry — and they found it ripe with opportunity and obstacles.
“The case studies illustrated that, no matter the industry — turning forests into lumber, cows into meat, wine into cheese — the issues were the same,” Atticks said. “Everybody had issues ... the planning department and the building department.”
Grow & Fortify now works to remove some of the regulatory hurdles that prevent more farms or farmland owners from selling directly to consumers.
The group makes a series of recommendations for the counties and state in a 107-page report at GrowandFortify.com.
Atticks said one of the problems is that the state lacks a definition of “value-added agriculture” and, therefore, ends up layering on the regulations of several industries: manufacturing, retail, transportation and agriculture, to name a few.
Currently, counties are making decisions about how to regulate many of these businesses on a case-by-case basis, which makes their treatment inconsistent and burdensome for many entrepreneurs.
For that reason, he thinks a state definition and suite of thoughtful regulations specific to the niche industry would be helpful.
The conference brought in speakers from Virginia, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and other regions to learn from their treatment of value-added businesses.
Virginia’s Loudoun County, for example, has poured funding and resources into supporting a growing industry of beer and wine producers — and peeling back the regulatory red tape to help them flourish.
Attendees also heard from some of Maryland’s most successful value-added businesses.
During a session on how to scale up such a business, Michele Tsucalas shared about her decade of experience founding and growing her Timonium-based Michele’s Granola, which now sells 10 varieties at 450 grocery stores in a dozen states.
After selling her wares at a farmers market, Tsucalas said her “big break” came with getting into Whole Foods Market stores. But she has continued to make the granola in small batches by adding more staff rather than machines over the years.
Other businesses were still struggling through the regulatory hurdles even as they presented about their successes.
Meaghan and Shane Carpenter, owners of HEX Ferments in Baltimore, said they experienced “three years of being hung up on and laughed at” when they first tried to launch a business turning local cabbage and other produce into sauerkraut and fermented products.
“It was important to us to be in Baltimore city, to hire people there and promote urban farms,” Meaghan Carpenter said of the business’s beginnings. “The state finally said we could do it under retail food processing.”