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Tobacco to veggies: Promoting change

(Monday, Sept. 22, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Eugene L. Meyer, Washington Post, 09/18/03: "So. Maryland, So Good."

So goes the new slogan from the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission aimed at the upscale metropolitan markets and unveiled this week -- along with a logo, a banner, magnets and stickers -- to promote all the region's crops save one: tobacco.

Since the State of Maryland offered farmers money not to grow it, the crop has all but disappeared from the Southern Maryland landscape. In its place, the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, of which the commission is an offshoot, is pushing the fruits and vegetables that find their way onto the menus of gourmet restaurants and the sales tables at suburban farmers markets.

The products already have eager buyers among some upscale metropolitan restaurants, but diehard former tobacco farmers have been slow to jump on the yuppie veggie, up-the-road bandwagon. The "So. Maryland, So Good" program is designed in part to convince them that the markets for different crops are there to be exploited, if they so choose.

"It's very tough for some of them to transition from tobacco," said Christine L. Bergmark, director of agricultural development for the Tri-County Council, which also administers the state tobacco buyout. With tobacco, the farmer simply takes his crop to the nearest auction warehouse, where others sell it. Marketing vegetables is a whole new ballgame.

"It's different trying to sell something yourself. Not everybody is comfortable doing it," said Bergmark, who with her husband, Brett Grohsgal, owns the Even' Star farm in Lexington Park, the only organic farm in St. Mary's actively engaged in selling its produce to Washington-area restaurants.

Among its customers is Addie's, opposite White Flint on Rockville Pike, which plans to include the new logo in its menus and newsletters and to place a "So. Maryland, So Good" sticker in its window. "It's in the French tradition of cooking what's locally around you," said chef Joseph Zumpano. "It's definitely something we support."

Zumpano is already a big fan of Even' Farm lettuce and, he said, is looking forward to buying fresh from other Southern Maryland farmers.

Kevin Pinti, chef at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Solomons, said he recently added the logo to his menu and has been buying from Grohsgal for five years. He also has purchased berries and peaches from D & S Farm in Charlotte Hall.

The farm products come not only from Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, but also from Prince George's and Anne Arundel, which are represented on the commission. Their names are included in the logo, with Prince George's, as it happens, on top -- strictly a design decision, according to Bergmark.

"We're certainly going to be stronger positioning our agricultural industry as regional rather than as individual counties," said St. Mary's Board of Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large). "And if we can gain some advantage by having Anne Arundel and Prince George's as part of it, I don't see a problem."

The marketing campaign costs $20,000. After some false starts, Bergmark turned to a California firm, Creative Consulting, to design the logo. "It incorporates water, so the bay is in the background, and transitions away from tobacco, so there is a tobacco barn and fields," she said. "The whole essence is of things coming from the field, bay and forest to market."

On the commission's behalf, Bergmark ordered 2,000 kits -- each consisting of a banner, tabletop poster, window decals, 2,000 stickers in two sizes and a CD with reproducible artwork -- and is selling them to farmers, restaurants, retail stores and distributors.

Each kit buyer agrees to meet "expectations" that include using the logo only with products "that are high quality and fresh." Failure to comply "will result in the loss of the privilege to use the "So. Maryland, So Good" logo and marketing materials," according to letters accompanying the marketing kit.

The campaign is motivated in part by the recent reluctance of supermarket chains to buy local produce.

"The big corporate stores changed their policies in the last year, [citing] $3 million liability, bioterrorism policies," Bergmark said. "Now all the food has to go to their headquarters." But Food Lion, for one, has its headquarters in Arizona, she said, and Giant, now owned by a Dutch firm, has "gotten harder to deal with." As a result, until the "So. Maryland, So Good" campaign gets into high gear, produce farmers must truck their crops from one suburban or city market to another.

"We're in nine farmers markets a week, along with picking," said Sue Loomis, co-owner of D & S Farm with her husband, Dan Gragan. They've been farming for 10 years, raising fruit trees and recently growing salad greens. Among their market venues are Brookland in Northeast Washington, the U.S. Department of Transportation building in Southwest, and Riverdale Park in Prince George's.

Unlike many of the old tobacco farmers, Loomis and Gragan, as well as Bergmark and her husband, come from urban, middle-class backgrounds. Loomis and Gragan supplement their farm income with off-season work, she as a substitute teacher, he doing computer-aided design for architects and engineers in Washington.

But they are just as committed to the new agriculture of Southern Maryland -- growing, marketing and selling it.

"Down in Southern Maryland," Loomis said, "we had a tradition of tobacco, corn, soybeans, winter wheat. That's all changing. Now it's vegetables and greenhouse activities. We've got good products and good people down here, and it's good to have an identity. It's nice that people can know about it.

"A lot of people don't know where Southern Maryland is. They think it's on the Eastern Shore."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A22654-2003Sep17.html