New re­gional ag di­rec­tor never strayed far from farm

As to­bacco phased out, com­mis­sion re­fo­cuses as­sis­tance

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By DANDAN ZOU dzou@somd­news.com

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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Shelby Wat­son-Hamp­ton is the new di­rec­tor at the South­ern Mary­land Agri­cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Com­mis­sion.

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