County rides local food wave

Effort features Web update, promotions

August 24, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Harford County is building on the trend to buy local with giveaways, a revamped Web site and a painting contest.

The recent incidents of contaminated beef and vegetables that made national news, the high cost of gas and a growing consumer awareness of how food travels from the farm to the kitchen table may all have a bearing on the increases in sales of locally grown products, officials said.

As part of an intensive effort to keep that trend going and encourage more Harford residents to buy from area farms, the county's Department of Agriculture has retooled its harfordfarms.com Web site to make it more consumer friendly.

Officials will launch the new site at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at The Mill of Bel Air, hoping the redesign of what has been a farmer-oriented site will pique consumers' interest, officials said.

"It will show where you can buy everything - burgers, cheese, ice cream and vegetables," said C. John Sullivan, chief of the Department of Agriculture. "We have such diverse ag products in this county that, with the exception of oranges and grapefruits, people would be hard pressed not to find what they want right here."

The department is striving to make agriculture more visible throughout the county, which boasts more than 300 working farms. Farmers' markets, including a few new ones this year, are weekly events throughout the county and are drawing thousands of customers, he said.

In the first year of implementing community-supported agriculture, Brad Milton, a Churchville farmer, sold out the program, Sullivan said. Consumers readily bought a share of Milton's farm products in the early spring before the growing season and are now receiving weekly distributions through the last harvest.

"Farmers know they have to get closer to consumers and people are really developing relationships with the neighborhood farmer," Sullivan said. "People are meeting the person who is putting food on the table and asking what cows eat, how chickens are housed."

Sullivan is also taking the campaign to the schools. He is working with education officials, who will select a school that would receive all local products for one week of lunches.

"Some farms don't need the publicity, but most realize the huge potential we have right here along the I-95 corridor," Sullivan said. "Our farmers know the value of selling direct to the consumer. By cutting out the middleman, they can maximize their dollars."

At the Farm Fair earlier this month, his staff gave away succulent local peaches, homemade ice cream, plastic corn butterers and bumper stickers, which are a fixture on county-owned vehicles. They also dispensed small plastic containers, made from corn products.

"People don't realize plastic can come from corn," he said.

Sullivan is also seeking suggestions from farmers in a search for strategic spots to revive barn ads. The plan is to paint the side of at least one highly-visible barn with the county's farm logo, a promotion that will be similar to the tobacco ads popular in the early 20th century. Photos of the painted barn will likely adorn a billboard or two in the more urban areas of the county, he said.

Richard Holloway, chairman of the Agricultural Advisory Board, said he is aware of the increase in local customers. He frequently has requests from customers who have come across his products on the Web site.

"We get more requests for locally grown food all the time," said Holloway, who sells beef at area farmers' markets and at The Mill. "With all the recent scares, I think more people want to know where their food comes from. They are more conscious of that now and want things directly off the farm, not something that has traveled thousands of miles to get to them."

In addition to raising cattle, marketed as Deer Creek Beef, Holloway farms about 900 acres, mostly in grain and hay.

"I sell directly to customers," he said. "I have not taken hay to auction for about six years and all our beef is retailed locally. My business has really picked up this year and I think it's the local thing."

The preference for buying local has shot up nearly 77 percent in the past year, according to a survey by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they have shopped at farmers' markets and roadside stands.

"We want residents to get used to shopping locally," said James C. Richardson, county director of economic development. "A lot of dollars leave the county because of out-commuting to jobs and shopping where they work. We are doing whatever we can to get them to consider purchases closer to home."

Harford is also looking at a sizable influx of jobs as the nationwide military base expansion, known as BRAC, comes to Aberdeen Proving Ground, he said. The county could grow by as many as 30,000 residents in the next several years.

"We want to get them all used to buying local," Richardson said.

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