Regulations hindering value-added agriculture

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (June 6, 2017) — If the state wants to boost value-added agriculture, it needs to do a better job helping counties understand where agricultural activity ends and commercial enterprise begins, a regional advocacy organization said last week.
Too often, farmers who want to start value-added agricultural businesses to keep their farms alive run into overbearing local governments who bog fledgling farm businesses down in excessive regulatory and code issues, said Kevin Atticks, founder of Grow & Fortify, a Baltimore organization that supports value-added agricultural and food production businesses.
“There’s a lot of overreach when it comes to what happens on farms,” he said to the Governor’s Intergovernmental Commission for Agriculture on June 1.
At the state and local level it’s often unclear what’s allowed or how an activity is defined, leaving local regulatory officials guessing. It leads to inconsistent regulatory enforcement across the state and stunts the growth of value-added agriculture, Atticks said. As a hypothetical, he imagined a lavender farm that wanted to construct a barn and bring people onto the property for baking classes, among other activities.
In many jurisdictions, he said, that would be considered commercial activity, which would trigger food and fire safety regulations.
The barn would also require a septic system with hot and cold running water.
Very quickly, the enterprise would become too costly for the farmer, which could endanger farms looking for new revenue opportunities.
“It’s becoming an ongoing problem because it’s a lot of money to sprinkle a 1,000-square-foot barn,” said Kelly Dudeck, director of strategy and special projects at Grow & Fortify.
Laws are devised and written at the state level, but they’re interpreted locally, she said, often in varying ways.
“It’s sort of setting the stage for an uneven playing ground for our guys,” she said.
Grow & Fortify works with organizations and agricultural upstarts to navigate those issues.
Crackdowns on farm wedding venues have become somewhat popular, Atticks said.
Occasionally, it’s warranted, he said.
“We are not proponents of someone buying a farm and turning it into a wedding venue or a conference center,” he said.
In some situations, counties are taking it upon themselves to ease and clarify their regulatory process for value-added agriculture.
Charles County, for instance, has started looking seriously at the issue, and so has Frederick County, he said.
“Frederick was tough to deal with,” Atticks said.
For four years, the county had no new value-added agricultural businesses. Now, it’s anticipating more than 20, he said.
But it’s critical that counties allow farms to pursue value-added agriculture without triggering commercial zoning regulations, he said.
“It’s a light switch,” he said. “You go from having a straw hat to being a Walmart executive.”