For years, R.J. Caulder sold the jams and honey she made on her West Friendship farm at the Howard County Farmers Market along with her signature goat's milk soap.
But while Caulder could sell the soap at any other retail outlet that wanted it, her marketing opportunities for the jam and honey were limited until recently. That's because long-standing state health rules restricted the sale of processed foods made in noncommercial kitchens. So although Caulder could sell jam at the farmers market or a roadside stand, she could not sell it anywhere else.
R.J. Caulder is trying to get a license to expand the kinds of outlets where she can sell the honey and jams she makes at her West Friendship farm. As part of the application process she has taken a training session in Howard County.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
In November, state regulators relaxed the restrictions in a move to boost profits at small farms and discourage mom-and-pop farmers from selling their land to developers. Under the new rules, farmers such as Caulder can sell more types of processed foods in more places. But they must get licensed to do so, and they must limit the sales of these products to no more than $40,000 per year.
"There's a desire to keep green space and do what we need to do to keep our farms profitable," said Jane Storrs, national marketing administrator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "As the population density increases in largely urban states such as Maryland, there's always pressure on farmers to sell out their land."
In Howard County, the number of farms fell 6 percent to 346, and the number of acres used for farming dropped 9 percent to 37,582 between 1997 and 2002, according to a survey released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year.
Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist at the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said farmers who were once limited to selling "low risk" foods such as baked goods and jams at farmers markets can now expand into certain types of products that are also safe for consumers and more profitable for farmers. Instead of selling basil, for example, they can turn it into pesto, make more money and not worry about the unsold leaves rotting.
Those who grow cucumbers can make pickles. Then they can market the products to grocery stores and restaurants or on the Internet.
Also, cattle farmers can sell meat that has been slaughtered, frozen and prepackaged at USDA-inspected plants off of their farms instead of having customers pick it up from the plants, as previously required, Myers said.
"Some farmers can use [the new rules] as a springboard to incubate new businesses at home," Myers said.
But first, farmers must attend state-sponsored training sessions to educate themselves on safe food handling and the requirements of the new law. Then they must submit a plan to the state health department and their kitchens must pass inspection before they can get a license, which costs $150 a year.
Caulder, the owner of Breezy Willow Farm, attended a recent training session in Howard County. If she gets the license, she may put her jam and honey on the shelves at Roots Market, an organic food store in Clarksville. She may also begin making mustard.
"I'm always searching for ways to expand my market," said Caulder, who runs the four-acre farm with part-time help from her husband. "I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but it all adds up."
The new rules do not apply to all foods. Restrictions remain for products that require specialized equipment and stringent monitoring. So farmers selling ice cream, yogurt or other milk products must comply with the same tough standards applied to large manufacturing plants, one state official said.
And farmers growing tomatoes cannot sell fresh salsa, which falls into the high-risk foods category, as Linda Brown learned after attending the Howard training session.
"There's no point in taking this [licensing effort] any further," said Brown, who co-owns Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg with her husband. "But I don't regret having gone through the training. Now I know what I can do if I want to."