SMADC issues $1 million grant to build ag center, meat facility
HUGHESVILLE, Md. — The St. Mary’s County government won a $1 million grant from the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission last week to build an agricultural center and meat processing facility for regional farmers.
SMADC’s board voted unanimously to select the winning grant proposal on May 2 — a milestone for the commission in its rocky, decade-long quest to build the facility, which local officials hope will boost the region’s agricultural economy and empower its small community of meat producers.
Many Southern Maryland farmers have complained for years about the inconvenience and long distance required to move livestock to overburdened processing facilities in rural Virginia, northern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. The new agricultural center, working with a nearby Amish slaughterhouse soon to open in Mechanicsville, would provide a local destination for farmers looking to slaughter, process and package their meat for distribution into the Washington metro area.
“It’s a big thing for the farming community down here,” said Todd B. Morgan, chairman of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, to a packed room of SMADC board members and staff at the commission’s Hughesville office. “A lot of farmers have reached out to us over the years for this. … It’s nothing but good news for St. Mary’s and Southern Maryland.”
The Tri-County Council’s executive committee still must sign off on the grant reward, but local officials said the vote, set for May 16, was a formality. The council, which promotes economic development across Southern Maryland, oversees SMADC.
“I would say the award to St. Mary’s is a done deal,” said John Hartline, the council’s executive director.
In addition to the meat processing facility, which will have butchery and value-added equipment, the agricultural center will include cold storage for farmers, warehousing for food distribution, a commercial kitchen, a retail store and land to support new farmers. Space for agricultural education, research and equipment rental storage would also be included.
St. Mary’s County plans to build the center, which could be as large as 7,500 square feet, at a 48-acre parcel it owns at 37766 New Market Road in Charlotte Hall. The site is several miles from the Amish slaughterhouse.
In its proposal, St. Mary’s County also featured its future relocation site of the North St. Mary’s County Farmers Market, to 29110 Redstone Way in Mechanicsville, just a short distance from the proposed agricultural center. The county plans to build a brand-new facility there for the market, currently held in a nearby library’s parking lot, and had hoped to use about $200,000 of the SMADC grant to expand that facility. But the commission decided to limit the award to just the agricultural center, which will likely need all of the $1 million, SMADC Executive Director Shelby Watson-Hampton said.
The commission received two bids for the grant in late February. The losing proposal was submitted by Les Gooding, a local businessman, who proposed renovating a former 20,000-square-foot tobacco packing plant he owns at 8275 Leonardtown Road in Hughesville. SMADC staff feared the site didn’t have enough parking space, and commission board members said the St. Mary’s County proposal was “by far the stronger bid,” according to literature distributed at the meeting.
“This is going to put us on the map,” Watson-Hampton said.
Commission members and local government officials at the meeting said the agricultural center should motivate meat producers in the region to grow their operations. Some farms in the region, which includes St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, want to produce more meat, but haven’t due to the inconvenience of getting it processed, said Mary Wood, the commission’s vice chair.
“This has real potential to open up the meat industry down here,” she said. “All these (processing) challenges are going to go away shortly.”
SMADC also views the center as a way to bolster Southern Maryland Meats, a marketing label the commission created to promote and sell the region’s producers. Negotiations with the state over SMADC’s yearly $900,000 budget have become less encouraging, and the commission needs to find ways to make its own money, Watson-Hampton said.
“It’s getting harder and harder to secure that money every year,” she said.
The state founded SMADC in the wake of a master settlement between state governments and the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s. The settlement netted several billion dollars for the state of Maryland, which used the money to buy out tobacco farmers who agreed to stop growing the crop. The commission was created to administer the buyout and help regional farmers transition into new farm products.
The agricultural center could restore Southern Maryland’s agricultural economy, which has been shrinking ever since, commission member B.J. Bowling said. In recent years, there’s been plenty of support to conserve farmland, he said, but not enough for farm production.
“Now there’s a reason to conserve the farm, and there’s a reason to farm,” Bowling said.
The agricultural center could be significant for produce farmers as well, said commission member David Paulk, owner of Sassafras Creek Farm in Leonardtown. His Certified Organic vegetable operation, which sells to restaurants and institutions across the metro region, could be expanded if he’s able to keep vegetables in the center’s cold storage for future sale.
The commission has been trying to build an agricultural center with a meat processing facility for a decade, Watson-Hampton said. Many of the commission’s initial efforts were aborted, however, after SMADC staff struggled to build a new slaughterhouse due to financing, expertise and regulatory issues.
The commission was trying to build a similar center with a slaughterhouse four years ago under former SMADC Director Christine Bergmark. It had proposals from 10 landowners eager to build the center in August 2015. A year later, after that plan collapsed, the commission decided to pursue only a slaughterhouse. That plan also failed. Bergmark resigned, and Watson-Hampton replaced her.
Last year, the commission was surveying local meat producers and searching for a path forward when a group of Amish farmers announced they were building a slaughterhouse in St. Mary’s County. The commission saw that a significant impediment to its project had been removed and relaunched a search for bidders last winter.
The slaughterhouse, which is nearly complete, awaits USDA certification, a process that could take several months. Though it’s an independent business, the commission helped the farmers through the process of designing and building it. It may be one of only two slaughterhouses constructed in the United States over the last four years, Watson-Hampton said.
She said she expects St. Mary’s County to begin building the agricultural center next year and open it in 2021.
“We are building something in Southern Maryland that is going to affect generations of agriculture to come,” she said.