Speed Dating for Western Maryland Buyers and Growers

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

SHARPSBURG, Md. — In 2008, the 22,000-plus schoolchildren in Washington County, Md., public schools were eating apples from Washington state, 3,000 miles away.

Today, every apple they eat is grown right in Washington County. If Kenneth Simcox has his way, they’ll be eating locally grown broccoli and greens beans, as well.

Simcox, assistant supervisor of food and nutrition services for the public schools, says if he can find a local vegetable for his students, he will buy it.

“We spend $4 million a year on food,” he said. “Any part of that we can keep in Washington County is a fantastic thing.”

Simcox, in pursuit of keeping that money at home, spent several hours Feb. 5 at the first Western Maryland Buyer-Grower Expo, held at the Washington Country Agricultural Education Center in Sharpsburg. He met and spoke to Western Maryland growers who might be able to supply the schools with fresh vegetables and locally produced meats, seafood, cheese and eggs.

Simcox has been to the last three annual buyer-grower expos held in Annapolis, but welcomed the chance to meet with growers closer to home.

“I can meet these farmers in person,” he said. “We need that introduction.”

Simcox met many farmers at the Annapolis events, but he said the distances for delivery make purchasing from them well-nigh impossible.

“I am thrilled that Leslie (Holt) organized this for western Maryland,” he said.

Holt, one of seven sponsors of the event, is the agriculture marketing specialist for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Simcox had a fruitful conversation with Ali Mohadjer, owner of Aliabaad Farm in Sharpsburg. That conversation could, with some work, progress to a contract for some of Aliabaad Farm’s fruits, vegetables, chicken, lamb and eggs, he said. For Mohadjer, the contact made the trip to the expo worthwhile.

Hoffman’s Quality Meats’ sausages, hams and hot dogs are already available in some major retail outlets — including Weis markets and the Hagerstown Suns home games — and Tiffany Jones set up shop at the expo to try to “see what else we can be part of. We’re looking at chances for expansion, perhaps into restaurants and stores that don’t already carry what we offer.”

The Hagerstown butcher and specialty shop offers USDA-certified custom processing of cattle, sheep, goats and deer, Jones said, and the shop also carries fruits and vegetables.

Charles DeBerry was there with expansion in mind for the 11-member Garrett Growers Cooperative.

The co-op was established in 2011, DeBerry said, and is staring its third year. Its members “work together to plan and market our fresh produce to new outlets, including restaurants, grocers, convenience stores and institutions. We educate our members on food safety, post-harvest handling and other topics of value to our customers.”

DeBerry, president of the co-op, was at the expo to see if the group can increase its marketing reach to grocery chains, convenience stores, hospitals and schools. They will have to balance supply and demand, he said.

“If we expand, we will have to add more growers. When we add more growers, we will need more demand.”

Garrett Duckworth, produce team leader for the Frederick Wegmans, stopped by the Waltz Family Farm table to chat with Laurie Waltz about her beef, pork and lamb and to taste-test the pulled pork barbecue.

“We deal with probably five local suppliers now,” Duckworth said, “but it’s always good to have more. In Wegmans, especially in our county, local is huge with the public.”

Wegmans “does a lot” for its local growers, Duckworth said. “We put them right in front of the produce department — which is the first thing customers see when they enter the store — and we put a sign with their name, picture, and where the produce came from. We always advertise the grower.”

Shane Andy, produce manager at the Hunt Valley Wegmans, scouted for growers who might grow his list of local suppliers.

“I wanted to check out this area, see what western Maryland has to offer in produce,” Andy said. “So far, everything is great. The food is excellent, and it’s great to meet other growers and suppliers.”

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