Southern Md. growers grapple with shortages
WALDORF, Md. — Southern Maryland agriculture continues to struggle with labor shortages and a growing surrender of farmland to residential construction and solar panels, growers said at a regional roundtable last week.
More than 20 farmers and representatives from regional agriculture organizations gathered for an hour-long roundtable held by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission at the Charles County Agricultural and Environmental Service Center to discuss regional concerns on April 25.
“We’re just watching one housing development after another go up,” said Amy McCurdy, sales and marketing manager at P.A. Bowen Farmstead in Brandywine. “Sometimes we don’t get adequate notice. … (We’re) feeling pretty stressed and almost helpless about what’s going on.”
It’s a perception issue within regional governments, said Harrison Palmer, vice president of the Prince George’s County Farm Bureau. It’s one of the reasons the Farm Bureau has been advocating for his county to hire an agricultural liaison within the government.
“Agriculture is not viewed as the best use of the land. It’s just something that we used to do, but we could be making a lot more money on taxes. We could be making a lot more money on the housing developments. … It’s just frustrating to see in the county because we do have such a rich agricultural heritage.”
The agricultural industry in Maryland too often struggles to find support across the state — odd considering agriculture is the state’s largest commercial industry, said Mary Wood, chairwoman of the SMADC board.
“I just have never been able to understand why it needs to be that way,” she said. “I see it getting worse, not better, and I know that sounds kind of negative, but you have to be realistic about what you’re looking at.”
The regional agriculture industry must continue to diversify its operations to be less dependent on traditional commodity crops, said Caroline Trossbach, Calvert County’s agricultural development specialist.
“If we can make farming profitable, farms won’t be sold,” she said.
Several members of the roundtable reiterated the importance of urban agriculture programs. Palmer said the Farm Bureau has been working with the Prince George’s County planning department to open plots of land for urban agriculture. The University of Maryland Extension recently hired two agents dedicated specifically to urban agriculture, said Ben Beale, an agent based in St. Mary’s County. David Myers, an Extension agent in Anne Arundel County, also launched an urban farming clinic on a working farm in Annapolis. last year
“That’s been very popular,” Beale said.
Two meat producers said they’ve had a difficult time with state programs meant to link local producers with institutional buyers. Larger buyers often don’t want to deal with smaller producers whose products sell at too high a unit price because they can’t produce their meat as cheaply as larger competitors, said Cindy Beuchert of Zekiah Farms3 in Waldorf. Southern Maryland Meats, a brand created by SMADC, could aggregate regional meat products to entice those markets, she said. The commission’s regional agricultural center, once constructed, should facilitate that, said Shelby Watson-Hampton, the commission’s director.
Many producers expressed frustration over the lack of job applicants, even after raising salaries. Gerardo Martinez, owner of Wild Kid Acres in Edgewater, is trying to inspire the next generation of farmers at his operation, which educates young people about agriculture through summer camps and other programs. He’s also a board member on the Maryland Hispanic Business Conference, which has taken an interest in El Salvador.
The Central American nation “has said that our country can solve the farm labor issue,” Martinez said. “They’re willing to work with every farmer and ship people here as long as the federal government (allows it).”
They’re also working with an organization that links farm workers with farms and even provides health insurance too, as long as the farmer has housing, he said.