Farmers debate viability of new processor in St. Mary’s
HUGHESVILLE, Md. — The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission awarded a $1 million grant to St. Mary’s County’s government earlier this month to build a regional agricultural center and meat processing facility in Charlotte Hall.
But if they build it, will farmers come?
Responses from meat producers across Southern Maryland last week varied. Some farmers said they see the processing facility, which could open within two years, as a welcome convenience and an end to hours-long drives to Virginia, northern Maryland and the Eastern Shore to have animals slaughtered and processed.
Others said they’re unlikely to break relationships they have with existing processing facilities — no matter how far away — and are wary about a project that needed government money and management to begin.
“Some of them are excited about it. Some of them will use it. Some of them will not use it,” said Jason Leavitt, Calvert County’s Farm Bureau president and owner of Wilson Dowell Farms in Owings. “I’m definitely going to use it.”
It’s a collective ambivalence that farmers expressed throughout the decade-long journey to bring a regional agricultural center to one of Southern Maryland’s five counties. Commission officials throughout that process have said support from the region’s meat producers is critical to sustaining a butcher shop and charcuterie service planned for the center on New Market Road.
A nearby privately-owned Amish slaughterhouse, which awaits USDA certification to open, is also a critical piece of the region’s new meat processing infrastructure, though its owners have said they expect no issues with demand and are already dealing with eager prospective customers. Ideally, commission officials said, farmers would have their animals slaughtered by the Amish and processed at the Charlotte Hall facility.
The commission is planning to schedule another town meeting next month to include farmers in the design of the new facility, but also to address lingering concerns, said Shelby Watson-Hampton, the commission’s executive director. Though it will be owned by St. Mary’s County, the commission has promoted the agricultural center as a way to boost regional meat production and its own Southern Maryland Meats marketing label, which requires farmers to follow specific quality and animal husbandry standards.
Some farmers, Watson-Hampton said, have expressed concern that the agricultural center could turn the label into a powerful competitor in the local food market. Susie Hance-Wells, a former Calvert County Farm Bureau president and owner of Battle Creek Beef in Prince Frederick, is one of those farmers.
“If they’re going to market this brand to restaurants… a lot of us have already done that,” said Hance-Wells, who is also a member of Southern Maryland Meats. “We’ve already done that legwork. Are they going to undercut us and have us lose our business?”
The label won’t be a competitor, said Craig Sewell, the commission’s marketing and livestock specialist. Farmers who use the processing facility will be able to sell directly to Southern Maryland Meats or take their processed goods home with their farm’s labels to sell to their customers, he said.
The center was created to capitalize on a boom in demand for local food that’s rejuvenated many farms across the Washington region, Watson-Hampton said.
“Is anyone having trouble selling out?” she said. “The answer is no. They can’t meet the demand. So this isn’t going to be competition; this is going to be an additional sales spot for them.”
But Southern Maryland Meats could be a vital piece of the commission’s future survival. Securing the commission’s yearly budget of nearly $1 million has required more lobbying in recent years, Watson-Hampton said. The commission is funded with money the state won in a master settlement between state governments and the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, but there is no guarantee that money will last past 2025, she said.
Grants, fundraising, support from Southern Maryland counties and money they make themselves will be crucial to their self-sufficiency once the tobacco money is gone, she said.
Still, other farmers said they’re unlikely to leave privately owned processors for one launched and managed with state money. John Butterfield, another beef producer and Southern Maryland Meats member in Chaptico, said he believes the processing facility is “doomed for failure.”
“If it was really a good business venture, don’t you think somebody else would have already fulfilled it?” he said. “That tells me that there isn’t enough business for that thing to be sustainable unless the government’s going to subsidize.”
Rick Catterton, owner of Progressive Farm in Anne Arundel County, said he doesn’t plan to leave his processor in Mt. Airy to patronize a new facility run by a quasi-state commission, even if it’s closer.
“I got a good thing going with the people I’ve been using, so I’m going to go with them,” said Catterton, another Southern Maryland Meats member. “I’m a repeat customer as long as I’m being treated fairly.”
St. Mary’s County’s involvement will be limited, said Donna Sasscer, the county’s agriculture and seafood manager. The county is merely taking the grant from the commission, building the facility and leasing it back to the commission or whomever the commission chooses to run it. Both sides are still negotiating the details of that partnership.
“It will definitely not be county employees cutting up meat, no. That was not in the bid process,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to be there to hold their hand and help make it a success.”
Commission officials said the new agricultural center isn’t entirely reliant on meat processing revenue and will offer a host of other services, including a classroom kitchen, a commercial kitchen and a meat locker and cold storage facility that could be used by different kinds of farmers as well.
The facility’s design also isn’t finalized, Watson-Hampton said. Last week, she and Sewell said they’re planning to add another piece to the facility — an oyster shucking operation.
“This is a regional agricultural center; this is not a regional meat center,” Sewell said.
For years, the commission pitched the project as a way to ease production obstacles for the region’s small community of meat producers, some of whom complained about the lack of nearby processing options. Agricultural officials across the region have lamented the number of slaughterhouses that have closed over the last several decades without replacement. Those that are left are often overburdened and place customers in months-long queues to process animals.
Bryan Dowell, co-owner of Crooked Branch Farm in Calvert County, said he plans to use the new facility.
“That’s going to save us a lot of trips to Delaware, Virginia or Baltimore, so having that down here is ideal,” he said. “I’d much rather go to St. Mary’s County, believe me.”
Margie Stone, co-owner of a cow-calf operation in St. Mary’s County, said she thinks the agricultural center could encourage farmers to grow their production across the region at a time when costs are rising and cattle prices are dropping.
“To have a local market where we can sell our cattle, it isolates us from everybody else,” she said. “I am personally 100 percent for what they’re doing.”
Cathy Cosgrove of Horsmon Farm in Calvert County said she worries that Southern Maryland Meats could flood the local meat market just as farmers market sales level out.
“The buy-local movement, it hit a peak a couple years ago,” she said. “I can push it and market and move it, but it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”
Leavitt’s farm, however, is growing. He processed eight animals this year and could process as many as 30 next year, he said. He pays close attention to the amount of time his animals travel to a processor because of the hormones that stress can release into the meat.
“There is a direct impact to the quality of the final product based on how far it has to be trucked,” he said.
To him, the new agricultural center is a convenience — even if all the farmers around him don’t agree.
“That’s basically going to give me a half a day back that I’m not going to have to spend on the road,” he said. “From a personal standpoint, I am optimistic about it.”
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925