Howard County Farmers Association (HCFA) Business Concept
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The Howard County Office of Community Sustainability is seeking food hub-based solutions that connect small and mid-sized farmers in Howard County with restaurants and retailers to expand the market for locally produced agricultural products. Under the supervision of instructor Philip Gottwals, the University of Maryland’s PALS-affiliated AREC 489N team studied successes and failures of organizations that have undertaken similar projects to determine the most appropriate and feasible solutions to the issues raised. A review of public data quickly revealed that Howard County's agricultural sector is both small and highly diversified. As such it offers both opportunities for, and challenges to, the creation of a food hub. Vegetable production, for example, is limited to 110 acres of production with the largest crop acreage devoted to an ornamental crop, pumpkins. The next largest vegetable crops are sweet corn and tomatoes, with all others representing negligible commercial, fresh market acreage. For a food hub to be viable, an increase in production and diversity would be required. Otherwise, it would be impractical to gather and distribute wholesale quantities of vegetables to restaurants, retailers, or wholesalers. Interviews with County farmers confirmed that market opportunity is not limited by facility-based services, such as aggregation, but instead were limited by programmatic and policy restrictions. Chief among their concerns are the impending food safety certification requirements imposed by the federal Food Safety Modernization Act audited by Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification. These regulations, which were previously enforced only on the largest farms, now apply to all fruit and vegetable producers, regardless of farm size or program cost. Unless these standards are adopted at the farm level, local producers would be barred from many, if not all, commercial sales. Further evidence that a facility-based food hub is unlikely to be successful in Howard County can be found in the depth and breadth of the existing food supply chain. Howard County is the epicenter of a 100-mile radius supply chain that includes approximately 4,000 firms that are involved in all aspects of the food industry, including logistics, manufacturing, and distribution. After interviewing businesses operating in these sectors, it was determined that sufficient options to aggregate, ship, or value add were available in the market, but that critical services, such as quality assurance, food safety certification, and marketing support were lacking, putting local farmers at a marked disadvantage over farms from outside the area. Given the above, the project team concluded that it would be a greater benefit to our client if further research and project development efforts were directed toward designing a multi-pronged Quality Assurance Program for the County combined with an associated marketing and brand management program to raise awareness of Howard County farm products. This multifaceted approach strives to implement the newly emerging food safety requirements as a method of expansion into new markets. This allows growers to participate in the supply-chain where well-documented demand for local, GAP-certified produce and quality assured beef cattle exists. The second facet of the approach involves creating a suite of strategic marketing initiatives designed to bolster consumer demand for local food.