New regional ag director never strayed far from farm
As tobacco phased out, commission refocuses assistance
Starting on Monday, Shelby Watson-Hampton became the new director at the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, replacing Christine Bergmark, who had been the director for 16 years. Watson-Hampton has been involved with farming since growing up on a farm in Prince George’s County and she said she has “always been dedicated to it.”
“Growing up in the agricultural community was a very special place to be,” Watson-Hampton said. “You grow up in it; you don’t normally go very far from it.”
In 2007, Watson-Hampton graduated from the University of Maryland’s College
of Agriculture and Natural Resources with a bachelor’s degree in animal science. She went on to work for the Montpelier Farm in Upper Marlboro as a farm manag- er for four years before working for the Maryland Department of Agriculture as a marketing specialist.
“She has different experiences with different sizes of farms,” said John Hartline, executive direc- tor of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, who was involved in the hiring process.
“Because she had worked at the Department of Agriculture, she had a lot of knowledge on the state level,” Hartline said. “On top of that, she’s a farmer at Prince George’s County” with real farming experience.
The commission was first creat- ed in 2000 to administer the tobac- co buyout program and explore alternatives to tobacco farming.
Bergmark was the commission’s first director, and she left her position in June after her contract ended, according to a May press release from the agency.
“She did a really good job the whole time she was here,” Har- tline said. As the tobacco buyout was mostly done in 2014, the com- mission’s board felt “it’s a new sit- uation,” and they wanted a change in experiences, he said.
As tobacco farming phased out, the commission’s focuses going forward include “helping the farmers market their products” and continuing land preservation, Hartline said.
Since its establishment, the com- mission has worked with county governments to help preserve about 36,000 acres of agricultural land and reduced tobacco production in St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties by 96 per- cent, according to Hartline.
“Since the economy is improv- ing some, there’s an increasing demand of turning farming land into development,” Hartline said.
And the best land preservation strategy is having profitable farms, said Jamie Raley, president of the St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau.
Raley said he hopes to see the commission continue its land preservation efforts and turn its focus away from “finding small, niche productions” to help production farmers that grow products like corn and soybeans.
Because the region has no grain-processing facilities and lim- ited grain-storage facilities, Raley hopes the commission would step in to help farmers lower transportation costs by either developing a less expensive transportation method or by helping set up new grain facilities in the region.
Watson-Hampton said her goal is to work to diversify farming operations and products and at the same time support conventional grain and livestock producers.
It takes all types — large, small, conventional, organic, niche, agritourism and value-added — to build a successful, diversified farming economy, she said.
The commission will continue its mission to connect consumers with local farmers and their products, by providing promotion and outreach efforts, such as the annual statewide Buy Local Challenge and through resource guides and marketing programs, according to Watson-Hampton.
She also plans to expand the commission’s social media outreach efforts and online presence.
“I’m excited to be here,” Watson-Hampton said, adding that she looks forward to working with all the farmers from the five counties to build a strong, prosperous farming community in Southern Maryland.
Shelby Watson-Hampton is the new director at the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.