In recent days, County Executive Jan Gardner has taken big strides in programs aimed at preserving and protecting the agricultural heritage of Frederick County.
In her proposed 2022 budget, Gardner has asked for $100,000 to study the feasibility of creating a vast, shared kitchen where small farms could rent out processing equipment and industrial storage space.
The project has been a dream of the farming community for a long time. Such a huge kitchen would make it easy for farmers to create products for direct sale to consumers.
Helen Propheter, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development, told News-Post reporter Jillian Atelsek that the creation of a shared kitchen is the first step in eventually making an “agricultural innovation center” a reality.
Then, the Gardner administration awarded $306,000 to 14 agricultural concerns in the county’s first-ever round of agriculture innovation grants. The program was announced last fall, but the grants were announced last week.
The aim of the grants is to fund projects that boost economic viability on local farms. Gardner said the grants could create up to 28 new agriculture jobs.
“The economies and the success of our small towns and our rural villages really are tightly linked and dependent on our having a thriving agricultural industry,” Gardner said.
Creation of an agricultural center with a shared kitchen could strengthen the efforts of the county to bolster the farming community, which is always under financial pressure in a fast-growing community like ours.
Maryland farmland is the sixth-most expensive in the country, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which valued it at an average of $8,080 per acre.
If we want to preserve our heritage in Frederick County, we have to invest in farms and farmers. It is an important goal for the county, to protect the quality of life we have all come to enjoy.
The shared kitchen has the potential of making farming a bit more economically viable.
“We love the idea,” Propheter told our reporter. “But now we really need the hard data behind the idea to make it something to move forward.”
One farmer who was able to address the value of a shared kitchen is Tom Barse, owner of Stillpoint Farm near Libertytown. He and his wife grow hops, and they decided to open Milkhouse Brewery on their farm in 2013, rather than continuing to sell hops to local breweries.
Barse said he had to build a processing facility and buy all new equipment, and it was quite expensive. He said he hopes that an agricultural center will allow other farmers have an easier time making the same leap.
Propheter’s office would oversee the feasibility study. She said she envisions a center that would allow farmers to turn their crops into market-ready products. She also hopes to have industrial freezers and refrigerators, so growers can keep their products fresh until it’s time to sell them at farmers markets, roadside stands or local grocery stores.
There are models for the project, including Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C., which was begun in 2012 as a “food business accelerator.” It started out by opening up shared kitchen and production space to small businesses, and has grown to include five retail markets and created more than 1,000 jobs.
Could something similar happen here? The idea of a new kind of ag center, focused on finding innovative ideas for our farmers, has enormous potential to transform and improve the farm economy in our county. And that is a good thing for us all.
We encourage the County Council to approve the feasibility study in the coming budget, and we anxiously await the results.