Earlier this year Charles County’s economic development department hired its first-ever agricultural business development manager, sending a clear signal to the county’s farmers that it sees them as a key to future economic growth.
Martin Proulx, a business school graduate of Frostburg State University in Western Maryland, joined the staff in the fall to spearhead the county’s effort to grow and expand commercial farming in Charles County.
“We’re definitely aware of the industries in the realm of agriculture that deserve our attention,” Proulx said. “There’s a booming industry and we want to make sure that we’re prepared.”
“Agribusiness is obviously growing,” he said. “It’s not just about corn and tomatoes anymore.”
In the heyday of tobacco farming, Charles County’s farms were a major economic driver for the region. Proulx and his colleagues in the economic development department believe that many of the ingredients are still there to fuel an agribusiness renaissance.
According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census of the nation’s agricultural infrastructure, as of 2012 Charles County had 382 farms totaling just under 47,000 acres. This represents just over 6 percent of the total land area in the county. The total market value of the county’s agricultural products totaled $12 million in 2012, of which $10.7 million was nursery and greenhouse crops and $1.2 million was livestock, poultry and related products.
The USDA conducts its census every five years; the 2017 survey went out to farmers last month.
“I am excited and nervous to see what we’re working with now,” Proulx said.
Proulx pointed to survey data that showed the latent potential of the county’s agricultural assets. More than half of the county’s farms are generating less than $2,500 in annual revenue from the sale of agricultural products.
“For a lot of farmers, their primary occupation is elsewhere,” Proulx said. “But it’s still important to keep that connection with farming and agriculture, and I’m happy to see that many people still believe that.”
Proulx, who worked his way through his master’s degree as an assistant marketing manager for a locally sourced meal-delivery program in Howard County and as the marketing manager of a farmers’ market, has spent a lot of time in his muck boots exploring the county’s farms and learning about their capabilities and needs.
“The most fascinating thing I’ve found is that several of the farmers I’ve talked to have actually left other occupations to come back home and embrace full-time farming,” Proulx said. “They’ve made that decision knowing that, in contrast to many other growing industries, this isn’t an industry that’s going to bring them a lot of profit.”
Of the many farmers Proulx has met, what they all have in common is patience and passion.
“They know that this is a 70-plus hour-a-week job, and they’re still willing to do it because they know the importance of agriculture and food in the community,” Proulx said.
The county’s economic development department wants to partner with farmers to help them turn their patience and passion into an industry that joins health services, federal contracting and professional services, entrepreneurial and retail development, and high-technology research and development as a key component of the county’s long-term economic strategy.
To accomplish that, Proulx explained, the county needs to determine how best to differentiate Charles County’s agricultural offerings in the eyers of consumers and potential business partners. And that involves being attuned to popular trends and finding ways to get those products to market.
Among the hot agriculture-based trends on the county’s radar is the craft beverage industry, which proponents believe is nowhere near reaching a saturation point.
The county’s economic development department is working to prepare a zoning text amendment that would lay out the requirements for locating and operating craft breweries, distilleries and wineries in Charles County.
Currently, Charles County has only one craft beverage maker, Blue Dyer Distilling of Waldorf, compared with two wineries and one distillery in St. Mary’s County and an impressive four breweries and five wineries in Calvert County, where zoning requirements for craft beverage makers were first included in county ordinances back in 2006.
Farmers have the option of growing hops and grains to sell to craft beverage makers, or investing in the construction of wineries, breweries and distilleries on their own farms.
The byproducts of distilling and brewing, furthermore, can be sold or given away to livestock farmers for use as high-protein feed.
Another popular agricultural product is medical cannabis. More than four years after the state legislature voted to legalize medical cannabis, growers, processors and dispensaries are beginning to open throughout the state, and many farms are poised to meet the demand for cannabis.
In Charles County, three dispensaries and two processors are currently licensed, and at least two other businesses have expressed interest in opening when the state approves another licensing round. Currently, the county has no cannabis growers.
As with any fledgeling industry, Proulx said, the biggest challenge is to ensure sustainability.
“If you look at the USDA statistics, a majority of these farms are small, and the average income for a farm is in the red,” Proulx said. “That’s because they are accounting for the small operations that are selling eggs every few weekends, whenever they can.”
“That being said, we don’t like to see any average for any industry in the red,” Proulx added.
However, Proulx believes, the small size of many farms in Charles County — the average size is 122 acres — can be turned into a marketing advantage.
“Farming is going smaller, it’s going boutique,” Proulx said. “It will be interesting to see how we can use that to differentiate farms here in our county and offer some new opportunities.”
The economic development department is also eager to capitalize on the growing trend among consumers for locally sourced foods by increasing local residents’ awareness of the availability of produce and livestock raised right here in Charles County.
Part of that, however, involves managing expectations about seasonal availability.
“Strawberries, in a good year, can have a two- or three-month season, in a best-case scenario,” Proulx said. “If you want strawberries that look and taste like styrofoam when you bite into them, you can get them year round from the West Coast. But if you want a strawberry that tastes like a strawberry, unfortunately you have to wait 10 months out of the year. But then, you’re going to get that really good strawberry.”
Success will also depend on good relations with Charles County’s neighbors. Proulx is unstinting in his praise for his counterparts in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, who have been helping him get the lay of the land.
“What I appreciate very much about Southern Maryland is that it’s a very collaborative environment,” Proulx said. “They understand how important it is to succeed as a region. Obviously we want Charles County to succeed, but there’s also a bigger picture here and Southern Maryland agriculture as a whole deserves our support.”
Proulx said his colleagues in the economic development department are as excited as he is about the possibilities for agribusiness in Charles County and the region.
“It’s exciting because there are many directions to go and we’re trying to see exactly where that will be.”