Niche markets grow for local farmers

Trend: More in Harford County are finding agricultural success and satisfaction using nontraditional methods.

October 26, 2003|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

UNLIKE MOST farmers, J. Brad Milton was not born into the business. He chose it.

"I always wanted to farm since I could walk," said Milton, who owns Brad's Produce, a full-time farming operation in Churchville. "My family knew I had a fondness for farming. They tried to cure me by putting me to work on a farm in the heat of July. I enjoyed it and kept on doing it."

That fondness has grown into a successful business raising produce, greenhouse flowers and grain. His fresh, seasonal vegetables and flowers are sold at his four produce stands in Harford County and at area farmers' markets. In the spring, Milton's 42-acre farm is open to the public with spring annuals, hanging baskets, asparagus and pick-your-own strawberries. Late summer brings hayrides, a corn maze and pumpkin patch.

The way Milton has carved out a niche market for himself resembles what many Harford County farmers have done in recent years. They are selling their goods directly to the consumers at roadside stands and farmers' markets, cutting out the middleman and pocketing more profit.

Harford County Agriculture Director John Sullivan says this shift from traditional farming to "value-added" products is important for the growth and future of farming in the county.

"We are seeing farms transition from traditional commodity-type products to higher-value products," said Sullivan. "That's really our role. To help farmers find a niche and market for those products. There are loads of success stories."

Although residential and commercial growth continues to gobble up agricultural land in the county it has also led to more opportunities.

"A lot of the growth Harford County has seen has brought about the success of much of the horticultural operations and nurseries," said Sullivan. "They supply all those new houses with potted plants, herbs, vegetables and fruits."

The industry in the county continues to include traditional and nontraditional farming. Traditionally, livestock and milk were major income producers. Cash grain acreage, both corn and soybeans, has increased over the past 10 years, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Fruit and vegetable production has increased because of market demand in the county and Baltimore City. Specialty products such as cut flowers, container flowers, wine, honey, Christmas trees, cheese and specialty meats also have entered the market.

These products are what consumers want, says Sullivan.

"Consumers want farm-fresh products," Sullivan said. "You know who produces it, where it was produced and the manner in which it was produced. Consumers get to walk up and shake the hand of the person who picked that corn that morning. That has a lot of appeal."

But direct contact with consumers is something new for many farmers. Gone are days when just driving a tractor was enough. Today's farmer needs to know not only how to grow and produce the products, but how to market them. Milton majored in agricultural business and marketing in college. He agrees that farmers need to be business-savvy to succeed.

"I can't stress enough that people who are interested in farming need to get their education in marketing and running a business," said Milton. "You can't just grow a crop and expect people to buy it. You have to grow what consumers want and specialize accordingly."

Candace Lohr, whose family has been farming since the early 1920s, said opening their farm to the public as well as to school groups has been an added value.

"It becomes an entertainment or social aspect for them," said Lohr, who also serves as vice president of the Harford County Farm Bureau. "A lot of families who come out spend two or three hours walking around. Corn/straw mazes, hayrides, pick-your-own produce, things like that draw them to the farm for entertainment, but then when they are there they are buying products. The bottom line is making sure we make the dollar that keeps us in business."

Lohr's Orchard in Churchville sells products including produce, fruit, jams and jellies from a farm stand. Also offered at the farm are wagon rides, tours of their cider mill and pick-your-own fruits and vegetables.

If it's not the farm stand consumers are driving to, it's the farmers' markets. The number of markets in the county has grown from one 10 years ago to five. The number of farmers participating has increased, from slightly more than 20 a decade ago to more than 75. On any given summer weekend, about 1,000 people pass through the markets in the county, Sullivan said.

But farmers in Harford County also face many obstacles. Commercial and residential growth continues to gobble up land. And as the population swells, objections can be heard over slow-moving farm equipment, odors and pesticide spraying. Finding farm labor and getting young people interested in the business are challenging.

The county Office of Economic Development estimates there are about 600 full-time farmers, and at least that many farm part time.

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