ANNAPOLIS – Holly Foster spends her days shuttling to Pennsylvania for weekly cheese-making sessions with an Amish expert, then to farmer’s markets throughout Maryland to sell her gourmet cheeses like cave-aged Chapelle.
Not bad for a farm mom who just a few years ago would not even venture from the family farm in Easton to the mall in Annapolis.
“It’s a real educational adventure,” said Foster, who traveled to California in 2002 to take a cheese-making course that would allow her family to pursue its dream of running a dairy farm. “I’m loving it. It’s a real adventure.”
The Fosters are among a group of Maryland farmers who have turned to value-added agriculture, a catch-all term includes any method that increases the value of a farm’s harvest. Orchards that make apple butter, vineyards that produce wine and farmers who label their product organic are all value-added operations.
The idea behind the growing movement is to increase the slim profit margins on farms: For the Fosters, it was a way to continue the family tradition of dairy farming despite the state’s uncertain dairy business and the high costs of buying cows and milking equipment.
Besides cheese-making, it meant learning skills that are new to most farmers, including marketing. Value-added products are often sold to customers directly by the farmers, cutting out the middleman.
“The closer we can get to selling to the end customer, the higher the profit margin,” said Ed Burchell of Roseda Beef.
Burchell sells the meat from his Baltimore County cattle herd to markets and restaurants after tenderizing it with a special aging process. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded him a $42,000 grant this year to develop a marketing and sales plan.
There appear to be plenty of willing buyers.
A study by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy reported that the number of Marylanders said they were more likely to buy produce identified as Maryland-grown jumped from 57 percent last year to 76 percent this year.
“Local grower is now the catch word,” said Ginger Myers, marketing specialist with the Maryland Cooperative Extension. “People are interested in sourcing their food.”
But the extra work and uncertainty of producing and marketing a product means that value-added agriculture is not for every farmer.
“It’s still a relatively small number of producers,” said Mark Powell, chief of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “With the assumption of more risk comes more potential for profitability. It’s not something for the faint-hearted.”
Foster can relate. Turning from a housewife to cheese maker and marketer has led to a few nervous moments.
“There were numerous times my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we done?'” she said. “We have really stepped out on a limb here.”
Besides the financial investment, farmers must abide by strict health regulations that come with producing food and must market their product aggressively, instead of taking their harvest to one location and selling it, Myers said.
“Farmers by nature are producers. It’s a very different hat to wear,” Myers said. “It takes social skills.”
Federal and state grants to encourage value-added agriculture are helping farmers make the leap. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave $22.7 million nationwide to 162 farms for value-added producer grants
Maryland is offering funds for the first time through the Maryland Agricultural and Resource Based Industry Development Corp., which will provide up to a third of the matching funds needed for 2008 USDA grant applications. MARBIDCO is also offering $5,000 grants to the three Maryland farms that won USDA value-added grants this year.
The Fosters’ dairy, Chapel’s Country Creamery, is not getting any grants yet, but it is participating in a state pilot program for making raw-milk cheese and hopes to soon open cheese-making facility and shop on site, where they will welcome visitors.
While Eric Foster handles the milking on the 45-acre farm in Easton, Holly takes care of the cheese business, making and marketing the family’s gourmet product online and at farmer’s markets in Washington, Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.
Kate Dallam of Broom’s Bloom Dairy in Bel Air, which sells local cheese, meat and ice cream in their dairy store, said value-added is not for everyone.
“Most dairy farmers are not terribly market oriented,” Dallam said. “You need to have a very friendly, open personality who likes people.”
“Taking on a business like this is another seven-day-a-week business,” she said.
Dallam said her dairy started making cheese six years ago to supplement farm income and sells to farmer’s markets and restaurants in addition to the dairy store.
“The whole business is just a lot of running. Sometimes it’s too much sugar for a nickel,” she said. “It does pay off. As times go by it pays off more and more.”