Planting seeds for farmers' outlets

Plan encourages industry to sell directly to consumers


Farmers raise food. People buy food -- but not usually from the farmer.

Creating more retail outlets for local farmers is a major goal in Carroll County's strategic plan for agricultural economic development, a 17-page document released last week and sought by the county commissioners as part of a long-range plan to boost Carroll's farm industry.

"Most of the time, farmers buy retail and sell wholesale," said Gabrield Zepp, who was hired a year ago to develop agricultural marketing in Carroll County. "If we could kind of change that around a little bit, the farmers might make more of a profit.

The plan calls for working with farmers to develop local, national and international markets. Other recommended strategies include starting loan pools to help farmers branch out, looking for more efficient ways to transport or store products, and encouraging more alternative agriculture products.

But increasing retail outlets is a major theme in the plan, in every agricultural category. Zepp wants to bring together growers and consumers. He is about torelease a directory of Carroll County farm products to distribute at tourism offices and library branches and eventually through the county's Web site.

Consumers could look up what they want -- Chrstmas trees, peaches, straw, beef, lamb, goat, meat, eggs -- and find a Carrol County farm that sells it.

Zepp envisions local farmers opening a large, indoor, year-round market in the populous South Carroll area. He even has a slogan they could use: "Home-gorwn in Carroll County.

Word of mouth

In Carroll, several farmers sell fruit and vegetables at small roadside stands or through large operations such as Baugher's Orchards. Beef farmers often sell to individual buyers who usually hear about them in informal ways, such as by word of mouth.

Norman Sellers and his family have a dairy farm near Manchester and attract a small following of customers who buy "dairy steers" -- dairy cows' male offspring that are raised to be beef. The money he makes from selling steers directly to customers compenstaes for months when milk prices are low.

"It gives us a little edge," Sellers said. "When you take cattle to market (at wholesale auctions), your're at the mercy of the buyers."

He has submitted information about his farm for inclusion in Zepp's directory.

Zepp hopes to make these farmers more accessible to people who don't know where to go to find beef "on the hoof" -- alive, that is -- or how to buy it that way. Farmers let customers choose a steer. If the buyer wants a portion of the steer, the farmer usually can find regular customers to purchase the rest. The steer is sent to a local, inspected commercial slaughterhouse for processing. A typical 1,2000-pound steer yields about 720 pounds of beef.

Dairy presents challenges

Finding retail outlets for ice cream, cheese and other dairy products will require more effort, Zepp said. Although beef farmers work with local slaughterhouses, dairy farmers in Maryland lack similar arrangements.

But that could change. A workshop on processing milk products -- for sale on the farm -- drew 130 people, said Michael Bell, and educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, whic sponsored the event April 1.

News of the workshop reached farmers who attended from as far as Colorado, Missouri, Iowa and New York, Bell said.

"This type of information is not as readily available as it ought to be, "Bell said.

He knows of no farmers in Carroll who proces dairy products. Doing so intimidates most farmers because of the expense of buying even used equipment, the inspections required and the extra work to find a market for the products.

"If you milk cows, you can always find someone to take your milk," Bell said, referring to wholesale dairies and cooperatives that but and process raw milk. But selling cheese or ice cream as a specialty requires marketing research, he said.

Bell said many farmers presume that federal and sate health codes would make it impossible or impractical for them to process milk on the farm. But a few farms in other states do so, and with some planning, Maryland farmers can do it, too, he said.

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