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Proposal unveiled for regional ag park

  • Charles County,St Mary's County,Calvert County
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Leonardtown, MD -- A proposal for a Southern Maryland Agricultural Business Park and Food Innovation Center was unveiled this week to the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County. The proposal is for a centrally-located facility that could include: new farmer incubation, food distribution center, food innovation center for start-ups, regional meat processing, aquaculture processing, equipment/warehouse storage, and indoor (with café/deli) and outdoor farm markets.

According to Southern Maryland Agriculture Development Commission (SMADC) Executive Director Dr. Christine Bergmark, proposals would be solicited shortly for expression of interest in the project including a site for the new facility, which would be funded through tobacco restitution monies, federal funding and foundations. There would be local tax monies used to pay for the land and facility.

Although the amount of tobacco restitution monies coming to Southern Maryland has declined this year, the area still receives $1.7 million annually, Dr. Bergmark said.

Bergmark and SMADC member Eddie Bowling of Charles County made the presentation to the commissioners, who decided to sign a letter endorsing the idea. Commissioners from the other four counties covered by SMADC, Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel have also been asked to endorse it.

While there was general support for the project, several of the commissioners were insistent that the facility be located so it was convenient to St. Mary’s County farmers, hopefully somewhere near the Charles/St. Mary’s County line. St. Mary’s has the region’s largest agriculture community.

Bowling told the commissioners that farmers now have to take their product to Virginia or Pennsylvania and often have to wait to have the processing done. He said a facility anywhere in the five counties would be better than what farmers now have. “We don’t know where it is going to be,” he explained.

Bowling is an example of the older farmer demographic in Southern Maryland, although that appears to be turning around a little with a slight uptick in farmers under the age of 35 since 2002. Bowling said of the proposal, “It is the future of agriculture and possibly my grandchildren.”

Bowling noted with the buyout and conversion from tobacco as Southern Maryland’s King Crop, the trends are to growing grapes, vegetables and a “lot of different things than we are doing now.” He said the trend is also to smaller farms.”

According to a Power Point presentation given to the commissioners, “The best form of agricultural land preservation is a profitable farm,” but, “The lack of profitability has hurt Maryland’s farming industry.” Total farm sales and sales per farm have both fallen steadily since 1974 in St. Mary’s County.

St. Mary’s and Charles counties still have a significant Amish community, with about 200 residents. Agriculture pursuits have declined in that community, Bowling said, because of English (Non-Amish) demands for other services. There is also a significant Mennonite population in the Loveville area.

But, the future of farming is bright, the presentation stated, because surveys show that people visiting restaurants want locally sourced meats and seafood and locally grown produce.

Another study showed, “Availability of locally grown produce and other local packaged foods are major influences on grocery shopping decisions.” And, 70 percent of the people surveyed are willing to pay at least five-percent more local locally grown products.

A bill passed during the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly, Senate Bill 909, gives the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland authority to use specified monies to purchase land for the proposed facility. That bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. The SMADC comes under the authority of the Tri-County Council.

Dr. Bergmark told the commissioners she optimistically hopes to have a site identified in the fall and completion of the facility by next summer. She said the proposal is a sustainable model. “We see this as an opportunity, a way to build long-term infrastructure,” she said.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com

 

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