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Savoring local fare: Howard County leans into the farm-to-table trend

It was a rainy, cold morning at the Elkridge Furnace Inn on Friday, but the restaurant’s greenhouses were teeming with lettuce, spinach, carrots and more, all destined for the historic restaurant.

Chef Dan Wecker has been growing much of the restaurant’s produce onsite for 30 years, and prides himself on his fresh and seasonal menu. In the last several years, Wecker has been buying as much as 80 percent of the food for his menu from nearby farms.

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In his own gardens he grows blueberries, cherries and apricots and year-round he raises a variety of vegetables including 30 types of lettuce, fennel and carrots that are harvested daily. Less than a mile away, Wecker buys his meat, including veal, pork and chicken, from Cathy Hudson’s Myrtle Woods farm in Elkridge.

“I am part of a community here and that means working together with my local people,” Wecker said. “It just makes sense.”

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Wecker is among a growing number of county restaurants that are dedicated to buying locally sourced ingredients.

To help support farmers, the county’s Office of Community Sustainability has launched “We are HoCo Fresh,” an initiative to certify and promote restaurants that buy their ingredients from Howard County farmers.

At the Howard County Fair, members of 4-H are offering free 30-minute walking tours of the fair.

Agriculture Coordinator James Zoller, who is leading the initiative, said the idea grew from a panel that advises the county executive on agricultural issues.

The program has gold, silver and bronze certifications for restaurants that buy $5,000, $2,500 or $1,000 worth of products from county farms each year. Zoller said he hopes that 15 to 20 restaurants will be certified in the program’s first year.

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Costs associated with the initiative are minimal Zoller said, as it will use existing staff to certify restaurants. Zoller said he estimates the initiative will spend a few hundred dollars to print certification stickers and to create plaques for participating restaurants.

To qualify for the certification, which they’ll be able to display and advertise, restaurants will need to send Zoller’s office receipts showing proof of purchases. While this will require some extra work on the part of the restaurants, Wecker said it’s worth it because of the positive marketing it will bring.

“We are benefited from people seeing that we are placing local products on our menu and the farms will see benefit from their product being featured in good restaurants,” he said.

Howard County is home to just under 300 farms, 10 of which are considered major produce growers and 25 are major meay producers, according to Zoller.

While farms in the county benefit from a more affluent population that can afford to buy fresh products, Zoller said farms here face higher land costs and that the number of farms has dwindled over the years; in 2012 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the most recent year of the census, reported there were 293 farms in the county, compared to 335 in 2007.

By verifying and certifying restaurants that buy more products from county farmers, the initiative will also help to weed out those restaurants that falsely claim to be regular local farm customers, a problem John Dove, owner of Love Dove Farms in Woodbine, said he has faced.

Dove, a fourth generation farmer, said he appreciates that the new program will help to hold restaurants that claim to be “farm-to-table” accountable.

“Both [restaurant and farm] businesses are very thin [profit] margins, so we need to be able to work together and build relationships. Because the customer is there, people are going to farm to table restaurants,” Dove said. “There needs to be a verification that that is in fact a farm to table restaurant, not just buying things one time and using my farm name on their restaurant.”

Howard County famers shared their thoughts on the state of agriculture in the county today -- and their predictions for the future -- at a roundtable Wednesday morning with County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Maryland ranked 14th in the nation on the 2017 “locavore index,” an annual ranking of states’ commitment to local foods compiled by the Vermont-based nonprofit Strolling of the Heifers. The state’s ranking has slowly gone up over the last several years, in 2012, the index’s first year, Maryland ranked 39th in the nation.

The University of Maryland Extension is one organization working to further promote farmers. Ginger Myers, marketing specialist for the service, said she’s seen demand for locally sourced restaurants rise over the last eight years, and that to make the trend successful, there needs to be trust and integrity between the farmers and restaurants.

“It behooves everybody to pursue transparency. We get into even grocery stores when they buy local product and the bin runs out, do they put the commodity tomato in the bin that still has the farmers’ picture on it,” Myers said. “Both the producer and restaurant need to have their feet held to the fire on this.”

Nathan Sowers, owner of River House Pizza Company in Ellicott City, said that the work required to establish relationships with farmers and to negotiate prices is worth it for the better food.

“The ingredients just taste better and they last longer. They’re usually cutting them that morning, so when you get them they’ll last for a good week, week and a half, versus supply stores that have been sitting for a week or two,” Sowers said. “As a restaurant that’s what people are asking for now; it’s easy to give it to them because it is better.”

University of Maryland Extension works to assist farmers in marketing themselves to restaurants such as River House Pizza, something Myers said farmers sometimes struggle with on their own. Morris said much of this work focuses on educating restaurants about how farms can provide them with the products they need and how the two can work together.

As the market for local products has grown, Myers said government initiatives such as “We are HoCo Fresh” are helpful in providing more advertising for farmers, but that more intervention from county, state or federal agencies often leads to more regulation and bureaucracy, something farmers and restaurants don’t like.

“It’s often been hard to be the corn cop, the steak police, to monitor what’s going on and who’s buying what,” she said. “Most folks don’t want more paperwork, so now if you say you’ve got to certify by invoices, making it profitable on both sides of the equation is the best thing.”

Nora Crist, owner of Clark’s Farm in Clarksville, said she has struggled in the past to market her farm to local restaurants, but that making connections through promotional weeks such as summer restaurant week and county entities similar to the Roving Radish, which sells meal kits containing locally made foods and helps promote nutrition and area farmers, help provide contacts and delivery services for products, making that process easier.

“Understanding [restaurants’] needs and time frame can be challenging, but the more we put ourselves out there is good,” Crist said.

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To help with that, this summer the Roving Radish, led by Zoller, is fully launching an online ordering service for restaurants to place product orders on one site for multiple farms. Dove, who plans to sell his products on the site, said he hopes the new site will allow for a more streamlined process between farms and restaurants and create more business opportunities.

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As for customers, Crist said the most important thing they can do to help farmers is to support their business both in their own shopping and by asking restaurants where they buy their ingredients.

“The people that you buy from at a farmer’s market or stand are going to be a lot more enthusiastic about what you’re purchasing than at a grocery store. They’re proud of their products, they can tell you the best way to prepare it,” Crist said. “The more that people get out there and buy from farms, they’ll start to appreciate putting a face to their food and how much work goes into it. We want you to eat good food and we want you to eat local food. Talk to farmers and let them tell the story of their food.”

Update: The original version of this story incorrectly named Ginger Myers of the University of Maryland Extension Ginger Morris. It has been corrected to correctly attribute Myers.

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