Lo­cal farm­ers reap ben­e­fits of lo­cal buy­ers

Push con­tin­ues to help South­ern Mary­land eat bet­ter, cheaper

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

For those who be­lieve in the old say­ing that you are what you eat, ac­cess to health­ier food op­tions has never been more im­por­tant.

Pub­lic of­fi­cials in Mary­land have been search­ing for health­ier choices for their con­stituents for years now. Prince Ge­orge’s County re­cently ap­proved leg­is­la­tion per­mit­ting food trucks in cer­tain “hub zones” to cre­ate health­ier food op­tions for their cit­i­zens. Charles County of­fi­cials

are con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing sim­i­lar ac­tion.

Thanks to farm­ers mar­kets spread across South­ern Mary­land, res­i­dents have healthy food op­tions and are able to ac­cess them on a weekly ba­sis.

Seth Koons, mar­ket mas­ter of the La Plata Farmer’s Mar­ket, said in re­cent years he has seen health­ier food choices be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

“It seems so­ci­ety has be­come ever more aware of the food we eat and how it af­fects our well-be­ing,” Koons said.

The state’s Buy Lo­cal Chal­lenge, which starts July 23 and lasts through July 31, gets cit­i­zens and busi­nesses to pledge to pur­chase food grown nearby through­out the week. But there are only so many op­tions for peo­ple to do that through­out the state, and many of them are in South­ern Mary­land.

In Charles County, the La Plata mar­ket is open for busi­ness ev­ery Wed­nes­day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and ev­ery Satur­day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Koons said any­one who comes by will al­ways find fresh and home­made food.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say they re­place the gro­cery stores in town, but the mar­ket cer­tainly pro­vides the town with a qual­ity al­ter­na­tive,” Koons said.

With mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als provided by the state, the ven­dors dis­trib­ute Buy Lo­cal Chal­lenge prod­ucts at their in­di­vid­ual booths. Buy­ing lo­cal food is im­por­tant for the com­mu­nity, Koons said, be­cause of the fa­mil­iar­ity with the prod­uct. The La Plata Farmer’s Mar­ket typ­i­cally has about 11 ven­dors on Satur­days and about six on Wed­nes­days, Koons said. Ven­dors have to pay a fee and be cleared by the county’s health depart­ment be­fore they open shop.

No, it does not re­place gro­cery stores, Koons said. But buy­ing lo­cal prod­ucts gives you more in­sight on where the food is com­ing from and puts you in di­rect con­tact with the peo­ple pro­duc­ing it. Many ven­dors and op­er­a­tors are lo­cal to the area.

“Buy­ing lo­cal food is im­por­tant in the sense that you know the qual­ity of the prod­uct you are get­ting,” Koons said. “And, some­times more im­por­tantly, where it’s com­ing from.”

Koons said giv­ing peo­ple a place where they can pur­chase lo­cal, health­ful foods “at good value” is the most im­por­tant func­tion of the mar­ket. That’s the pri­or­ity in La Plata, he said.

In St. Mary’s County, David Paulk, who owns and op­er­ates Sas­safras Creek Farm near Leonard­town with his wife, Jen­nifer Paulk, said farm­ing cul­ture and buy­ing lo­cal is start­ing to be­come more and more im­por­tant to peo­ple. It is grow­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to get peo­ple into farm­ing, David Paulk said, but it still re­mains a prof­itable in­dus­try. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s 2012 cen­sus data on farm­ing (the most re­cent avail­able), South­ern Mary­land farms showed an in­crease in rev­enues dur­ing the pre­vi­ous five years. From 2007 to 2012, Calvert County farms’ av­er­age sales in­creased from just over $14,000 to $41,417. Charles County’s in­creased from $21,287 up to $31,273 in that same time pe­riod and St. Mary’s County’s in­creased from $25,680 to $34,494.

David Paulk said he ex­pects rev­enues from farm­ing to keep grow­ing once that data is up­dated. Peo­ple have pri­or­i­tized eat­ing health­ier and buy­ing lo­cal prod­ucts they can trust, he said. That brings more busi­ness to farms and farm­ers mar­kets.

The Paulks have “al­ways grown or­gan­i­cally and al­ways had gar­dens,” Jen­nifer Paulk said. It was only a mat­ter of de­cid­ing to turn it into a prof­itable ven­ture as their gar­dens kept in­creas­ing in size and her hus­band grew closer to re­tir­ing from the Navy, she said. In 2010, she said, they fi­nally de­cided to sell their or­ganic pro­duce at the lo­cal farm­ers mar­ket in Cal­i­for­nia at the BAE Sys­tems park­ing lot on Route 235.

“We had such an in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive re­ac­tion from the peo­ple at the mar­ket that con­vinced us we should give it a go,” Jen­nifer said. “All of this came to­gether and we bought a big­ger farm. And it’s just been grow­ing ev­ery year since.”

The Sas­safras Creek Farm, lo­cated just north of Leonard­town, op­er­ates on 80 acres with or­ganic pro­duce such as arugula, kale, squash, cu­cum­bers and dozens of other prod­ucts. Jen­nifer Paulk said peo­ple put in spe­cial re­quests for dif­fer­ent prod­ucts they may want through­out the year. Re­quests are al­most al­ways granted, she said, some­times de­pend­ing on the grow­ing sea­son.

“But it’s all about what our cus­tomers want,” she said.

David Paulk said they try to give their cus­tomers some­thing unique, such as gar­lic, which is rarely grown in South­ern Mary­land, he said.

“We brought a lot of di­verse veg­eta­bles and we read­ily iden­tify with peo­ple be­ing cer­ti­fied or­ganic. We just filled a niche that was un­der­served,” David said.

Buy­ing lo­cal prod­ucts from a store and buy­ing from a farm are two dif­fer­ent things, David said. Some­times, the food on farms is cheaper, but it comes with a bond and a trust that “you just can’t get” at su­per­mar­kets.

The Sas­safras Creek Farm does have a pos­i­tive out­look on busi­ness, though Jen­nifer Paulk said she would like to see more farm­ers mar­kets in more lo­ca­tions through­out South­ern Mary­land.

“There’s a strong mar­ket here with the pub­lic, but I per­son­ally don’t think there are that many farm­ers mar­kets,” she said. “The num­bers are in­creas­ing as they are around the coun­try, but the mar­ket is still re­ally good.”

The mar­ket is primed for growth, David Paulk said, with the re­gion be­ing so close to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Peo­ple of­ten come from the city, he said, to buy lo­cal prod­ucts. But the more mar­kets, the bet­ter, he said.

Ben­son Ti­ralla, who runs Mon­nett Farms in Calvert County along­side his wife, Jamie, said the mar­ket con­sis­tently has traf­fic from all over, but a

ma­jor­ity of it comes from South­ern Mary­land.

Ti­ralla sells live­stock and meats, he said, from both his farm and the BAE park­ing lot farm­ers mar­ket in St. Mary’s County. He said he trav­els to St. Mary’s County be­cause there are more mar­kets in the county and it ex­pands his client base.

The mar­ket in South­ern Mary­land is good, Ti­ralla said, but there could be a wider range of places to sell.

How­ever, Char­lie Cox, a farmer at Spi­der Hall Farm in Calvert County, said hav­ing more mar­kets does not nec­es­sar­ily bode well for farm­ing cul­ture and farm­ers in the re­gion.

Cox said his fam­ily has never used a farm­ers mar­ket to sell their prod­ucts and has al­ways sold from a road­side stand at their farm. The profit has al­ways been there for them and the same em­pha­sis on buy­ing lo­cal still stands, but adding more mar­kets to the area only di­lutes the prod­uct more and more.

“In my opinion I don’t re­ally think we need more. It’s sim­i­lar to the pros and cons of busi­ness,” Cox said. “If you flood the mar­ket with more lo­ca­tions, you might see an in­crease in busi­ness but you’re go­ing to see a de­crease in vol­ume [of peo­ple] at each farm­ers mar­ket.”

Hav­ing con­sumers know who they are pur­chas­ing from is im­por­tant in farm­ing cul­ture and busi­ness, Cox said. Peo­ple who come out to buy lo­cal prod­ucts can get to know the peo­ple who they pur­chase from, he said. Prod­ucts may be more ex­pen­sive, he said, but there the op­tions are ul­ti­mately health­ier.

At the Spi­der Hall Farm stand, they put a pre­mium on cus­tomers get­ting to know the Cox fam­ily, and how their food is pro­duced. Their best ad­ver­tis­ing comes from their cus­tomers, he said. “My dad al­ways says word of mouth is the best method of ad­ver­tis­ing.”

Cox said he does a lot of the be­hind-the-scenes work of grow­ing, har­vest­ing and tak­ing care of is­sues on the farm while his sis­ter han­dles the busi­ness of the farm stand.

Still, he said, he is able to get to know the peo­ple who are buy­ing from them and he can show peo­ple what his work en­tails.

Cox, who is the cur­rent chair­man of the Young Farmer’s Com­mit­tee in the Calvert County Farm Bureau, said a fam­ily run­ning a farm to­gether is not nec­es­sar­ily con­sid­ered an ap­peal­ing life­style, but he thinks it should be.

“It’s not hard at all. We try to live a very hum­ble life­style. Some peo­ple say it’s a lit­tle slower paced, but I haven’t seen it slow since I’ve gotten into it,” Cox said. “We’re go­ing ev­ery day of the week. It looks like a dif­fi­cult life­style, but it’s not. I like to think of it as very hon­est and very hum­ble.”

STAFF PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL SYKES II

Jen­nifer Paulk shows a cus­tomer how much her pro­duce will cost at the Sas­safras Creek farm stand in the BAE park­ing lot in Lex­ing­ton Park.

This small “lo­cal grown” sign lets cus­tomers at the La Plata farm­ers mar­ket know where their toma­toes are com­ing from.

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