New business springs from old farm traditions

More than 200 years into the life of their family farm, Tim and Mitzi Jones decided their future should include cheese. 

Bowling Green Farm has been producing milk from about 100 Holsteins and has been in the milk business since the 1920s. A few years ago, however, they realized milk wasn't enough.

"There is no money in milk at this point," says Mitzi Jones, whose husband's family has owned the farm since the late 1700s. Sitting on 400 acres in the Sykesville area, Bowling Green Farm is one of three dairy farms still in business in Howard County, compared with about 300 in the 1960s, according to the county's economic development agency.

Since then, the price of milk the dairy farmer gets from the processors has bounced up and down, but it has not kept up with manifold increases in the cost of feed, fuel and everything else needed to keep a farm running. The Joneses are committed to staying in farming — their land is in agricultural preservation for good — but a few years ago, they figured they had to try something new.

The result is evident on a warm Wednesday afternoon at the farmers' market in the parking lot of the Charles E. Miller Branch of the county library in Ellicott City, where Mitzi Jones has staked out a spot under a dark-green tent. Seven other vendors arrayed in a square around her are selling vegetables, fruit, meat, baked goods, coffee and preserves. She's selling several flavors of cheese in blocks and cheese spread, including tomato/basil, red wine, mustard dill, bacon cheddar and one made with Old Bay seasoning.

The Bowling Green cheese business — now beginning its third year — is the first farm venture to benefit from a new Howard County grant program meant to help farmers establish and expand agricultural businesses. The Joneses have been awarded a grant of $10,000 under the program plus $5,000 from the county Economic Development Authority to cover about half the cost of a building and walk-in refrigerator to accommodate the expanding cheese operation.

"We wanted to be able to grow," Mitzi Jones says. "We need more space for that."

As it is, they're using a part of the basement of their home for labeling and refrigerating their cheese, and finding that they cannot always keep enough stock on hand to meet demand. They plan to put up a one-story, 900-square-foot pole barn, perhaps with steel siding, but they're not sure.

"Nothing fancy," says Mitzi Jones, noting that their building plans have not yet been submitted to the county for approval.

The Agricultural Development Grant program announced last week was recommended in PlanHoward 2030, the general growth blueprint adopted this summer. Using money from a portion of county real estate transfer taxes, the program will award two grants a year from $1,000 to $10,000 each. Applicants have to put up their own cash to match the grant, and can use the grant to reimburse them for new business expenses, says Kathy Zimmerman, the agricultural development manager for the Economic Development Authority.

"Our farms are looking to diversify and expand operations so they can remain economically viable," says Zimmerman. She says the grants could be made for activities such as research on new business ventures, new buildings and equipment. She imagines the people who run the county's farms pursuing an array of possibilities: winemaking, beer brewing, soapmaking, cheesemaking, perhaps solar power.

When the last count was taken in 2007, the county was home to 335 farms and local agriculture was making $200 million in sales a year. On the basis of number of employees, agriculture is considered the county's fifth-largest industry, after government (including education), technology, manufacturing and distribution, and associations and nonprofits.

Even after 50 years of robust home-building and commercial development, farms in 2007 still occupied 18 percent of the county's 161,394 acres, much of it in the western portion.

That fact was striking to Laura A. Neuman, who took over as chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority about 18 months ago after years of experience as a CEO of three high-tech companies.

"I wasn't aware that so much of our county is devoted to agriculture," says Neuman, describing herself as a "city girl" who grew up in East Baltimore. Since taking the position in Howard, she has made a regular practice of visiting county farms, finding not only that it was fun, but also that local farmers are not quite like the masters of industrial agriculture one might find in the Midwest.

"They're all entrepreneurs," she says. "This is different from big farming. This is local farming."

She says her department is "really focused on bringing local produce and meats to restaurants and markets in Howard County" — part of an increasing public awareness of the virtues of buying food grown nearby.

The new grant program is part of that "farm-to-table" enterprise. Those who apply will have to spell out the details of a business plan for their farm, including statements about current and projected income and new product marketing. As this is not something farmers are necessarily accustomed to doing, Zimmerman says, she's willing to help with the paperwork, but the county will also be offering classes on business planning.

Neuman says the Bowling Green operation is a good example of how this can work, as a farm starts small with a new product, perhaps having part of the work done elsewhere at first, and builds from there.

Bowling Green's cheese is made from their Holsteins' milk by a cheesemaker in Berlin, Pa. Once a month, a tank of milk — one of 15 tanks produced at the farm each month — is shipped to the cheesemaker, who sends back 8-ounce blocks and containers of spread.

The Joneses do the labeling, and need more space for that, for putting together holiday baskets and eventually, they hope, for making some of their own products such as mozzarella cheese and yogurt.

They're thinking about assuring the future of their children, 14-year-old Shannon and 12-year-old Jacob, who have shown interest in continuing the family's two-century tradition, Mitzi Jones says.

The cheese business, she says, is "something, hopefully, for our kids to build into when they grow up."

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