Agriculture has been a mainstay of Charles County’s economy and culture for many years.
Several decades ago, this region was primarily recognized for a single crop--tobacco. Since the decline in the region’s tobacco industry, Charles County’s agricultural landscape has become far more diversified and continues to evolve. Today, Charles County is home to 385 farms across more than 41,000 acres.
As a part of the rapidly developing D.C. Metro Region, Charles County is experiencing growth in a historically rural region, and agriculture continues to have a positive impact on the local economy. Although farmland acreage is declining, agriculture is still very much an integral part of Charles County, and the evolution of agriculture and loss of farmland continues to pose challenges and opportunities.
To consolidate Census data and identify significant trends and opportunities revolving around agriculture, the Charles County Economic Development Department released an Agricultural Economic Development Assessment in June 2021.
This report gives a snapshot of the County’s current agricultural economy and shifts or trends in related industries. The assessment consolidates relevant USDA Census of Agriculture data and current industry trends to provide a baseline of where the agricultural landscape stood prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This assessment presents some challenges, such as the steady loss of farmland, but also highlights three trends that are benefitting the industry and economy.
Buy Local Movement
The viability of small-scale farms relies heavily on support from local consumers and the growing “Buy Local” movement. Selling directly to consumers means a higher profit for farmers, and consumers benefit by knowing where their food came from. The COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted the food supply chain in March 2020 also highlighted the importance of local producers and community sustainability.
The loss of farms and acreage in production is shifting the agricultural landscape. The shift towards buying local goods doesn’t just include raw produce for the dinner table but extends to processed or finished goods, often referred to as “Value-Added Agriculture,” which aims to “enhance their social value, shelf-stability, and profitability.” Value-added processing is now a significant part of the State’s agricultural industries and can range in complexity. One of the fastest growing and economically significant sectors in value-added agriculture has been craft beverage production. Another is locally produced meats.
Agritourism is often associated with “Value-Added Agriculture” because it’s intended to enhance the value of farm products and experiences. However, instead of connecting with consumers through various marketing and sales channels, agritourism operations invite the public to the farm.
Defining “Agritourism” and expanding regulations to recognize emerging value-added agricultural trends is the first step in supporting and strengthening the agricultural industries within Charles County.
AFFECTS of COVID-19
Beyond the historic influences that impacted data in recent USDA Census of Agriculture reports, the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to some significant shifts by the 2022 Census of Agriculture. Although Agriculture in the State of Maryland was recognized as “essential,” the pandemic presented challenges and opportunities and created shifts in business operations and strategies. With significant closures of the food supply chain, such as grocery stores and restaurants, many farms had to pivot and find new marketing and distribution channels.
The summarized data within this year’s Agricultural Assessment will present baseline information to help gauge how the landscape changed through the pandemic once the next Census of Agriculture is published and released. The assessment is not intended to steer decision making but to provide a practical snapshot of the industry and trends to better assist the Economic Development Department in allocating resources and programs to better serve agriculture in the region and related industries.
The 2021 Agricultural Economic Development Assessment can be accessed online at https://www.meetcharlescounty.com/downloads/ For more information, contact Martin Proulx, Agriculture Business Development Manager, at ProulxM@MeetCharlesCounty.com.