- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

CHURCH HILL, Md.

Amid the locally grown strawberries, sweet peas and asparagus at Shore Good Produce in Queen Anne’s County is a little rack of snack foods that may be as important to local farmers as the fresh fruits and vegetables.

They don’t look like much — just little blue bags of soybean snacks and some flavored popcorn. But the Chesapeake Fields snacks are a crucial experiment aimed at keeping the pastoral countryside free from subdivisions and strip malls.

Here is how the operation works: Farmers on the Eastern Shore grow wheat, corn, soybeans and other commodity crops to sell to the Chestertown-based snack-food company. Then Chesapeake Fields turns the crops into artisanal breads and nutritional snacks such as flavored soybean chips. About half the profits go back to the 33 participating farmers. The growers get a bigger share than they would receive from the commodities market, so they are making more money and becoming less inclined to sell their land to developers.

Sounds like a complicated business model, but the Chesapeake Fields brand is holding its own.

“It definitely tastes good — better than it looks,” said Cathy Miller, an employee at the produce shop who said sales of the snacks are brisk, though many don’t recognize the brand. “People love it when it’s local. The first thing they ask is, ‘Where’s it from?’ When they learn this stuff is coming from here, they love it.”

The breads were introduced less than two years ago, with eight varieties. Now the company markets 45 kinds, including olive rosemary and double chocolate cherry sourdough. Customers include the Tidewater Inn in Easton and the Hyatt Regency resort in Cambridge, plus restaurants as far away as Philadelphia and the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

The soybean snacks and flavored popcorn are on sale at 100 retail locations. Chesapeake Fields recently received a contract to sell the soybean snacks to a company in Taiwan, and the company is eyeing land in Kent County for a factory and agritourism site. Less than five years after it was conceived by a county extension agent, the homegrown snack-food company may play a meaningful role in the viability of Eastern Shore farming.

“I liked the idea of having your destiny in your hands instead of taking what they give you,” said Jim Miller, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and barley in Kent County. Mr. Miller devotes up to 15 percent of his 1,000 acres to Chesapeake Fields crops, and he is chairman of the Chesapeake Fields Farmers’ Cooperative.

“I was trying to see how I could make a little more money on the same amount of acres. It’s kind of hard to make a living when you’re a farmer,” said Mr. Miller, a fourth-generation Kent County farmer.

Mr. Miller said he has been approached by developers interested in buying his land, which makes him just the sort of farmer Chesapeake Fields is aiming to recruit.

The company is divided into three parts: a farming co-op, a for-profit food-sales branch and a research arm that looks for better crops for farmers. All three branches benefit from Chesapeake Fields sales.

The goal is to boost profits among area farmers, plus raise awareness amid non-farming neighbors about the importance of preserving agricultural land.

“In the ‘90s, the economic prosperity of our farmers was going south, and we just couldn’t see any profits. So I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something different,’” said John Hall, a 25-year extension agent for Kent County credited with starting Chesapeake Fields.

Mr. Hall mapped out the three-part enterprise, an experiment that has received attention nationwide. Mr. Hall said he has lectured on Chesapeake Fields to farmers as far away as California and North Carolina.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who benefit from a healthy agriculture industry.

Joseph Bauer, president of Chesapeake Fields Farmers, said the company is also an experiment in how to keep a pastoral atmosphere on the Eastern Shore.

“If we can have the farmer in a more positive cash-flow position, they’re much less likely to sell for development,” he said.

The products aren’t organic, but they are made from crops that are not genetically modified and the ingredient lists consist of things customers can pronounce. The seeds are “identity-preserved,” which means they are tracked so consumers can know where their food originated.

“If I were to go buy a bag of popcorn, I can go back and trace it all the way back to the field where it came from,” said Joseph W. Goetz, Chesapeake Fields’ director of sales and marketing.

For now, the breads and snacks are processed in a southern New Jersey factory, but Mr. Bauer said the company plans to open a factory near Chestertown. The site would be built for tours, so school groups could see how wheat becomes a loaf of bread and how soybeans turn into snacks that look like potato chips.

The snacks aren’t cheap — a 1.25 ounce bag of soybean chips sells for about $1 — but Mr. Bauer said the foods are tapping a market of health-conscious customers.

“There was a period in time when the American public wanted food cheaply, and they didn’t care where it came from,” Mr. Bauer said. “Now there’s a shift in the consumer. They want to know where their food is coming from and ‘Is it good for my family?’”

Mr. Bauer envisions a day when Chesapeake Fields snacks are sold throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, with participating farmers from as far away as southern Virginia and North Carolina.

But there are no plans for purchase by a larger food producer. The point, Mr. Bauer said, is to keep profits at home for the farmers who grow the ingredients.

“It’s really nice to go out and see some bread that could’ve been wheat out of our fields,” Mr. Miller said.

“Most farmers, they don’t have to make a million dollars every year and belong to a country club and get a yacht. You just want to make a decent living as a commodity farmer.”


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