A Wider Market for Small Farmers
Sunday, May 1, 2005
For years, R.J. Caulder sold the jams and honey she made on her farm at a farmers market along with her signature goat's milk soap.
Caulder could sell the soap at any other retail outlet that wanted it, but her marketing opportunities for the jam and honey were limited until recently. That's because state health rules restricted the sale of processed foods made in non-commercial kitchens. So Caulder, whose farm is in West Friendship, could sell jam at the Howard County Farmers Market or a roadside stand but could not sell it anywhere else.
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, small entrepreneurs such as Caulder, even those not living on farms, can sell more types of processed foods in more places. But they must get a license and limit sales of the goods to $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."
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 the consumer and more profitable for farmer. Instead of just selling basil, for example, they can turn it into pesto, make more money, and not worry about the unsold leaves going rotten.
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 packaged at USDA-inspected plants from 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.
Farmers must attend state-sponsored training sessions 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 of 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, a state official said.
And not all processed produce can be sold. For example, farmers growing tomatoes cannot sell fresh salsa, which falls into the high-risk foods category.