Producers question ag center project
HUGHESVILLE, Md. — Skeptical meat producers continued last week to ask pointed questions about the construction of a regional agricultural center and meat processor in St. Mary’s County.
The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission gathered roughly 50 people, most of them farmers, in the auditorium of a local electrical cooperative on June 19 to discuss the project almost two months after awarding a $1 million grant to St. Mary’s County’s government to build the facility in Charlotte Hall.
Several farmers praised the facility and said the new processor will eliminate long drives to overburdened processors elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia. But commission officials said the meeting was organized in part to reassure farmers with questions about the project, including one concern they’ve heard more frequently over the last several months: Will the agricultural center elevate the commission and its Southern Maryland Meats label into a powerful competitor in the regional meat market?
“If (SMADC) is going to start selling local to schools at large scale… that’s kind of taking away from the local farmers,” said Elaine Zehner, a Huntingtown farmer.
Although the agricultural center will process livestock for local farmers, the commission also plans to buy and process its own livestock for sale in the center’s retail store and to institutions such as schools and hospitals. That would motivate local meat producers to expand production and make more money, said Shelby Watson-Hampton, the commission’s executive director.
Wholesale meat sales, she said, “is going to be a huge chunk of what we’re doing here.”
Once the agricultural center opens — possibly in 2021 — the commission would also take a small percentage of meat sold at the center’s retail store.
Several farmers have said they fear the new processor will allow the commission and its label to flood the market with product and lower meat prices. But Southern Maryland farmers haven’t come close to meeting the demand for local meat, Watson-Hampton said.
“The reason for this is production and distribution and to help you connect with your customers in a wider way,” Craig Sewell, the commission’s marketing and livestock specialist, said to Zehner. “I didn’t convince you.”
“No, you didn’t,” Zehner said. “We’ll see. I know there aren’t answers yet, but that is a potential pitfall.”
About 50 farmers in Southern Maryland belong to the Southern Maryland Meats label, which requires farmers to follow specific quality and animal husbandry standards.
The commission needs to start making its own money if it’s going to survive beyond 2025, Watson-Hampton said. The commission receives nearly $1 million a year from a state fund of cash won in a master settlement between state governments and the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s. In addition to money it makes from its meat label, the commission plans to pursue grants and fundraising.
The commission is also depending on the success of a new Amish slaughterhouse in Charlotte Hall. Commission officials hope local farmers will take their animals to the slaughterhouse so they can be trucked to the agricultural center for butchering. The slaughterhouse, now known as Westham Slaughterhouse, is open for custom processing and is expected to receive USDA certification by the fall, Sewell said.
Commission officials also sought to reassure farmers that the agricultural center will not be government-subsidized. The facility includes commercial and classroom kitchens and a meat locker and cold storage for produce — all of which will help it become profitable within three to five years of its opening, Watson-Hampton said.
“This is going to be self-sustaining,” she said.
St. Mary’s County officials have said they are handing management of the facility over to the commission. The details of that arrangement are still being hashed out, Sewell said.
“None of this is going to work unless we do a world-class job of it,” he said.
One farmer said he doesn’t believe the slaughterhouse will process enough animals to stay afloat. The Amish haven’t worked out a long-term business plan, including how many animals they need to slaughter every day or month to remain in business, Sewell said.
“That’s not part of the lexicon right now,” he said.
But once it receives its USDA certification, farmers from across the Washington region will patronize it, Watson-Hampton said.
“We’re going to get people who are maybe an hour from Southern Maryland but are three hours (from another processor) in Sudlersville, and they’re going to be bringing animals here too,” she said. “Virginia is right across the bridge.”
The commission hopes to break ground on the center next year. St. Mary’s County will build the facility, which could be as large as 7,500 square feet on a parcel of land it owns at 37766 New Market Road, several miles from the Amish slaughterhouse.
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