SMADC reissues proposal for processing facility
HUGHESVILLE, Md. — The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission’s goal to establish a meat processing facility for farmers in the region has been a frustrating, years-long journey.
A 2015 proposal was ambitious: a regional agribusiness and food innovation center that included a slaughterhouse, value-added facilities and research fields. It failed in February after the commission received just one unconvincing bid.
The commission moved in a less ambitious direction shortly thereafter.
Led by its new executive director, Shelby Watson-Hampton, the commission convened local farmers to discuss whether the region actually needed a full slaughterhouse and processing service — or just a transport facility to move local animals to processors elsewhere.
Now, the commission is marketing another proposal. It’s also more ambitious.
Commission officials have been meeting with county governments across Southern Maryland this month to rekindle interest in a large, regional agricultural center that, in addition to meat processing services, would offer agricultural workshops, a commercial kitchen, cold storage, warehousing and value-added facilities, Watson-Hampton said.
The commission is hoping each of the region’s five counties — Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Calvert, St. Mary’s and Charles — bid on the project, which includes $1 million from the commission to build the facility, Watson-Hampton said. The commission is looking for the winning county to offer an ideal site — and anything else it might want.
The project more closely resembles what the commission first envisioned under Watson-Hampton’s predecessor, Christine Bergmark, who resigned in March 2017. The new proposal offers livestock farmers a cut-and-wrap facility and value-added operation for smoking, sausages, charcuterie and other items.
Additional value-added facilities, including a commercial kitchen, would help farmers turn their crops into jams, jellies, pickles and baked goods. Livestock farmers would be able to hold meat before sale in cold storage or sell directly at an on-site retail operation, including a farmers’ market. Warehouse space would be built for local farmers to sell, aggregate and distribute to local buyers, including grocery stores, restaurants and schools.
“I think it can really be a regional and agricultural hub for the five-county area,” she said. “And maybe beyond.”
Counties might also be encouraged, she said, because the proposal doesn’t include a slaughterhouse. The region’s Amish community has built its own commercial, USDA-certified slaughter facility in Mechanicsville in St. Mary’s County with plans to open for business by the end of the year, she said.
“It’s so cost-intensive to actually build a slaughterhouse,” Watson-Hampton said. “When the slaughterhouse was involved, and that was such a heavy lift, everything else was pushed to the side. So now the slaughterhouse is off the table. … Thank God for the Amish.”
The center would also be a central location to rent farm equipment, such as the commission’s popular portable meat freezers, which livestock producers use to transport meat from processors across the region.
The commission is offering an additional $800,000 in the form of a low-interest loan to a business that would run the processing facilities, Watson-Hampton said. Four parties experienced in the meat industry have expressed interest, she said.
The commission hopes to have a formal invitation for bids out to each county by Aug. 31. The bid would be open for 45 days.
The commission has long hoped to build a meat processing facility to assist livestock farmers who routinely complain about the long distances they travel to have their animals processed, often in rural Virginia or northern Maryland at busy facilities with long waiting lists. A larger agricultural center could also help Southern Maryland capitalize on the Baltimore-Washington region’s demand for local food, commission officials have said. The region spends roughly $26 billion a year on food, only 2 percent of it local.
Wholesale buyers and restaurants have also said they find it challenging to buy from multiple small farms. A regional agricultural center that aggregates local meat, produce and other ag items could be the solution, she said.
“No matter where the facility lands, this is for the region. This is for all five counties,” Watson-Hampton said. “It’s going to be a rising tide that lifts all boats.”
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