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Frederick County's farm aid

September 10, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

What can Washington County do to promote its farm industry, which accounted for $60 million in sales last year?

The short answer, which is likely to be the cheapest one as well, is to use the Internet, as economic development specialists in Frederick County do.

In contrast to the Washington County Economic Development Commission's Web site at hagerstownedc.org, which has few references to farming, the Frederick County Web site at discoverfrederickmd.com makes the most of that county's agricultural activity.

"Frederick County," the site says, "offers a rare combination of a thriving agricultural industry and a growing professional population."

Under the section labeled "industry focus," agriculture is No. 1, with the profile showing that 1,300 producers raise more than $100 million worth of agricultural products on more than 215,000 acres of land.

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The site also notes that Frederick County dairy farmers sell $52 million worth of dairy products each year - in contrast to Washington County's $45 million - making Frederick one of the top 75 counties in America in dairy production.

But the Frederick effort goes beyond statistics with a three-pronged promotional effort that begins with the Virtual Farmers Market.

Click on the Web site's icon of a rooster sitting atop a weather vane and you get a list of products that range from fruits ands vegetables to wine.

Want fresh fruit? You can go to the Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont or to Thanksgiving Farms & Orchard in Adamstown. Using the site, you can find anything for sale from a horse to a jar of jelly, and directions on how to get to where they're being sold.

The second strategy is the "Home Grown Here" campaign, in which local producers place stickers on their products identifying them as grown in Frederick County. The Web site says those who have an interest in farmland preservation can buy products with that label in restaurants, at farmers' markets and at grocery stores.

The Frederick EDC is also co-sponsoring "Family Festival @ The Farm" on Saturday, Oct. 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 19, from noon to 4 p.m. Billed as a self-guided tour of 11 county farms, it includes a tour of Elk Run Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md.

The printer-friendly brochure for the event says it will include information on how to get started in the grape-growing business by the Maryland Grape Growers Association. That should be of interest to local folks, since Washington County's EDC is encouraging winery development here.

Until recently, Frederick County's EDC had a business specialist devoted primarily to the retention and development of farms and ag-related businesses. Interviews to fill the post are under way, according to Laurie Boyer, EDC's director of operations.

Boyer said that all the initiatives mentioned on the Web site are "designed to maintain the viability of agriculture in the county."

The "Home Grown Here" campaign was launched to "create a brand, so that people will see that this is a very fresh, very local product," she said, adding that about 25 local farms participate.

Another one of EDC's farm-related priorities is to promote agriculture and educate citizens on the "impact and benefits associated with a thriving ag industry."

Asked if that meant telling citizens why farmers must sometimes spread manure, Boyer said it did. But she also said EDC's task is to tell citizens how taxes that businesses pay help keep down homeowners' property taxes.

"That's actually one of the things we're doing with Family Festival @ The Farm, to tell people not only how important they (farms) are to the economy, but to our life," she said.

Other priorities listed on the Web site include helping farm owners do business plans and encouraging the relocation of ag-related businesses to Frederick County.

For example, Boyer said, a dairy farmer might theoretically be encouraged to build a cheese plant on the farm as a kind of value-added enterprise, she said.

One farm in Middletown has formed the South Mountain Creamery, which provides home-delivered milk and a variety of other dairy-related products.

Is there any reasons Washington County couldn't do some or all of this? None that make good sense. The cost of adding a page to the Washington County EDC Web site would be negligible, though there would be some additional time involved in inputting information on the additional farms and updating them when the crops were available and/or sold out.

Are there good reasons to do this? Yes. As I established in this past Sunday's column, residential development rarely pays for the services it requires, like schools. If too many farms are developed, every taxpayer's costs go up.

How do we keep that from happening? Restrictive zoning is one way, but the easiest and best way would be to help farmers remain profitable so that they wouldn't need to sell out for development. Frederick County is on the right track and Washington County should begin to follow its lead.

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