Helping farmers find their niche

County marketer spreads the word on local produce

July 23, 2008|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Special To The Sun

The sight of a wooden table full of plump peaches, shiny red cherries and mounds of ripe blueberries at Harbin's farm stand in Ellicott City on Monday makes Kathy Zimmerman's efforts to turn people on to local produce seem easy.

In fact, farmers are reporting increased traffic at farm stands, pick-your-own operations and farmers' markets this season, and organizations across the state are promoting a "Buy Local Challenge" this week to encourage the purchase of fresh, local food.

But Zimmerman's role as the Howard County Economic Development Authority's agriculture marketing specialist still holds plenty of challenges as she helps farmers reach customers amid rapidly growing suburbs.

"I want to educate the public and to help the farmers here continue to grow and diversify their businesses, to keep them economically viable," she said.

Zimmerman, who started the job in October, has been involved in agriculture all her life. She grew up on a dairy farm that her family still operates in Dickerson in Montgomery County. She studied dairy science at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., and then went to work for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

While raising four sons in Littlestown, Pa., she provided crop consulting services to farmers and worked as a crop insurance adjuster. She also ran a continuing education program as a young farmer adviser with the Gettysburg Area School District.

"I am one to work anywhere where I can help agriculture grow," she said.

According to the last U.S. Department of Agriculture Census in 2002, there were 346 farms in Howard County with an average size of 109 acres. Sales of agricultural products in the county totaled more than $20 million annually.

According to Economic Development Authority statistics, horse operations, including those focusing on pleasure riding and thoroughbred farms, constitute a significant percentage of the farms in the county. The "green industry," including nursery plants, horticulture and landscaping materials, is the fastest-growing segment of agriculture in the county.

In Howard County, land values have increased, and farmland is becoming scarce, Zimmerman said. And for farms everywhere, the costs of fuel, fertilizer and other supplies have tripled in recent months.

Even with increased interest from buyers, "to balance it out, [farmers] still have to work really hard," she said.

For the past several years, the Economic Development Authority has focused on helping county farmers identify niche markets, enhance their offerings in agritourism activities such as pick-your-own and farm festivals, and sell items directly to consumers to get the most value from their products.

The strategy seems to be paying off. Zimmerman said she has seen a demand for local food this year that was not there three years ago.

"A big part of it is flavor and health," she said, but people are also becoming more concerned with keeping their dollars in the county and cutting down on the miles their food - including meat and dairy products - travels before it is sold.

Over 50 years of running their farm stand on Route 99, the Harbin family has learned the value of offering food directly to consumers.

"People like to have the fresh produce available to them," said Kim Taylor, who owns the stand with her husband, Mike. "It is more of a trend now than [eating] organic. I think people really want to eat healthy and locally."

The stand now gets produce from farms in Southern Maryland and in Pennsylvania, having given up the growing part of the business a couple of years ago. By marketing to the nearby customer base and diversifying to include flowers, plants and Christmas trees, Taylor said, "it enables us to support our family. We make a living and it's a good, honest living."

This year, the Economic Development Authority is supporting three farmers' markets in the county. They are at the east Columbia library Thursday afternoons, the Glenwood library Saturday mornings and Oakland Mills Village Center on Sunday mornings.

Zimmerman said the demand for farmers' markets is far ahead of the number of farmers who are available to participate. County markets have about half of their producers come from other parts of the state, she said, and she has had requests to start markets from people in Savage Mill, Elkridge and Ellicott City.

"I wish we had farmers who could participate," she said.

Zimmerman said she is also working to connect restaurants to local operations that can supply fresh produce, meat and dairy products.

Another issue that Zimmerman has made a priority is promoting farming as a career for young people.

"The biggest challenge across the nation is finding the next generation to farm," she said.

Locally, "the lack of agriculture education in the schools is a problem," she said. "It is not promoted as a career opportunity."

She is working on materials that can be used in all of the county high schools' career development programs to introduce youth to the opportunities available in agriculture.

She is also working with a committee of farmers, organizations and businesses to line up the fifth Farm/City Week from Sept. 23 through Oct. 4. The kickoff for that event will be the Iron Chef cooking competition at the Howard County Fair on Aug. 7.

Despite the difficulties, Zimmerman said, there is still a great appeal to farming.

"It is a good lifestyle," she said. "It is an opportunity to be a steward of the land we have been given."

Information on agriculture in Howard County is available at www.hceda.org/agriculture.

sandyjalex@aol.com

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