"Maryland's Best" no longer applies just to the Terps basketball team. Now it's the designation for state agricultural products that meet certain quality and environmental standards.
Similar to "Virginia's Finest," established in 1989, the new Maryland program is a brand name for produce grown, seafood harvested and food items processed in the state.
Victoria Gurtenboim, Maryland's Best coordinator, said the program is an outgrowth of requests by farmers and others for more recognition for the state's agricultural accomplishments. Agriculture is Maryland's top commercial industry.
Initiated in the spring and kicked off at the Maryland State Fair in August, Maryland's Best will include as participants not only farmers and wholesalers but also farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants that sell Maryland's Best.
Participants must pledge that their products meet or exceed various local, state and federal requirements. About 150 participants have signed up so far, Gurtenboim said. In contrast, the Virginia's Finest program has awarded its special designation to about 800 producers.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture is completing a Web site (www.marylandsbest.net) that lists standards that must be met and sanctions for misuse of the designation. Soon, Gurtenboim said, the site will list the products and sellers that are Maryland's Best and will include a calendar of events.
For the immediate future, the program is planning a promotion of Maryland's Best Christmas tree growers and hopes to set up samplings in grocery stores of other products.
Expanding its agricultural branding efforts, Virginia recently launched a "Savor Virginia" promotion, kind of a "Virginia Is for Food Lovers" campaign. It is designed to give Virginia agricultural products higher visibility in retail markets, especially restaurants, and to match growers of specialty produce with restaurants that need it.
"A lot of farmers, for example, have stopped growing tobacco and begun growing fresh produce," said Thomas N. Sleight, director of the marketing division of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "But those farmers are production-oriented, not market-oriented. We want to help them find markets . . . and focus more attention on the wide variety of Virginia food products."
Although agriculture was Virginia's top industry in 2001 (agriculture and tourism usually battle for the highest ranking), traditional crops supported by commodity programs -- cotton, tobacco, peanuts, soybeans and corn -- represented about 80 percent of production. What are known as specialty crops -- fruits, vegetables, seafood, beef, poultry, Christmas trees and nursery plants -- made up the remaining 20 percent. But their share of the industry is increasing, and because these producers have no federal subsidies to fall back on, finding markets for them is essential.
Currently, there is no efficient way to match producers with buyers, Sleight said.
One step toward that end was a food expo in Washington in August for chefs and restaurant owners that featured some of the best-known chefs in Virginia and the District cooking foods from some of Virginia's larger producers.
Sleight said the expo "was designed to enhance Virginia's image in the lucrative D.C. market," which he described as tough to gain access to. It was followed by a Savor Virginia promotion this fall at Sutton Place Markets, featuring Virginia-grown produce.
Virginia officials hope a next step in the program will be placards on restaurant tables touting state products and even menu listings that note the specific areas in which certain foods are produced. And they hope to publicize restaurants that use Virginia products.
The following Maryland restaurants have been verified by Virginia officials as buying Virginia products from at least three of these categories: produce, poultry, pork, marine products, beef/bison and wine.
* Jaleo, 7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-0003
* Clyde's, 70 Wisconsin Cir., Chevy Chase, 301-951-9600; 10221 Wincopin Cir., Columbia, 301-730-2829
* Thyme Square, 4734 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-657-9077.