Farmers on Maryland's Eastern Shore could build a more prosperous future, using less land, if they would expand fruit and vegetable production instead of focusing solely on growing crops to support the region's poultry industry, new research shows.
Strengthening a Region: Using Input-Output Analysis to Quantify the Impact of Crop Diversity on Maryland's Eastern Shore was prepared by Eastern Shore Agriculture Sustains LLC and Chesapeake College. Chesapeake College partnered with Eastern Shore Agriculture Sustains LLC to secure funds to conduct the study. The study explores the environmental, economic and social impact of investing in a new local food supply chain instead of continuing to focus solely on the poultry industry.
The study, using detailed analytical models to measure economic activity, found that producing a greater variety of crops to be distributed through a local food system would create more jobs and tax revenue as well as generate less pollution in the communities of the nine counties that make up Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"This isn't a case of either-or," explained Professor Gregory Farley, the study's co-author and director of Chesapeake's Center for Leadership in Environmental Education. "Our study's findings should encourage Maryland to support farmers in diversifying their operations to include other crops while still maintaining poultry feed farming."
Most farms in the region produce two or three rotational crops: corn, soybean and wheat. These crops are marketed primarily as poultry feed for a small number of national and international poultry integration firms. Producing a limited number of crops for a small number of firms makes the Eastern Shore economy more vulnerable to risks like potential Avian influenza outbreaks, or domestic and global market forces such as price volatility and international currency manipulation.
"Large-scale food production has always taken place on the Eastern Shore and it still does today, but the produce is not varied and operations often do not include local processing and distribution," added Steven Jones, a co-author from Eastern Shore Agriculture Sustains. "We felt that discussions were missing from the local dialogue around the opportunity for producing a greater variety of crops that are distributed locally. What impact would that have on diversifying risk and bolstering the local economy?"
Like many rural communities across the United States, following the 2008 recession, the Eastern Shore has seen less economic recovery than urban areas of Maryland. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven of the 10 Maryland counties with the highest unemployment rates were located on the Eastern Shore in 2013.
"We were really interested in answering the question: If we had dollars to invest, how could we best use the Shore's current assets - open space, soil fertility and hard-working farmers - to strengthen the region," said Farley. "We found that the use of small parcels of land to raise a variety of vegetable crops for human consumption is good for regional farms because it requires less land, creates more jobs and local spending of disposable income, diversifying risk in our region. Also it potentially generates less pollution."
Using economic input-output analysis (IMPLAN), the study analyzed the effect of a hypothetical $13.6 million increase in sales to the poultry industry versus the same increase to an operation in the vegetable-farming sector. (At the time the study was conducted, the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a trade agreement among 12 of the Pacific Rim countries including the U.S. - was estimated to bring $13.6 million of new sales to the Delmarva poultry industry if signed.)
Jones and Farley modeled this growth in the poultry processing and poultry and egg production industries and then modeled the same growth in a local food operation, an organic grower and retailer in lower Cecil County.
IMPLAN predicted benefits over a one-year time span. In total, investing in produce resulted in creating 127 jobs in a year while investing in the poultry industry created 100 jobs in a year. Vegetable and fruit farming also yielded higher wages in the study area and 16.5 percent more tax revenue to the region.
The benefits did not stop at the economic level: Vegetable farming models produced only half the greenhouse gases and released one-fifth the pollutants that affect surface water quality than poultry farming would in a year.
The study also found that expanding and diversifying the vegetable farming sector could be done using far less land than expanding poultry and grain farming. To generate $13.6 million, vegetable farming required just 36 percent of the land area that poultry farming required-10,596 acres compared to 29,146 acres.
"This impact study is a great ice breaker as to what a local food system could mean to the Eastern Shore. But to make it viable, we need more in-depth analysis of the Eastern Shore's capacity to produce food," concluded Jones. "Our next study will be to evaluate agricultural land that is available to grow food without displacing grain farming so we better understand capacity."
Read an executive summary of the study here.