For Martin Proulx, the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s first-ever value-added agricultural specialist, the path to his current position began with a part-time job during college. “I don’t come into agriculture with the traditional background,” the Frostburg State University business and marketing graduate explains. As a student, he found a side gig selling fresh goat cheese at an area farmers market “for a little extra cash,” and realized that he enjoyed working with producers. Returning home after graduation, Martin began managing farmers markets and working at a Howard County program, the Roving Radish, that delivers locally sourced meal kits to residents. “Through that, I kind of realized the importance of agriculture and preserving farms,” he recalls.
Three seasons of work there led Martin to a position as Charles County’s first agriculture business development manager, where he realized his educational and professional experience could be “applied directly to helping agricultural businesses get established and expand.” This often involved supporting business owners as they worked to “navigate the regulatory framework,” which can be a daunting process. “Agriculture has evolved quickly over the years, and the regulation has not,” he notes.
Establishing a “One-Stop Shop” for Producers
This year, based on recommendations from a state taskforce, Maryland lawmakers passed legislation that officially established the role of value-added agricultural specialist within the Department of Agriculture: a person whose primary responsibility would be to help value-added producers in Maryland understand and navigate the variety of government regulations that exist at the federal, state, and local levels. Martin became the first person to hold the new position in July. Since then, he’s been building what he refers to as “a reliable one-stop shop for our agricultural producers” at all stages. He’s also committed to “working with state partners to create a framework that allows…Maryland to harness and encourage the growth of agriculture and value-added agriculture processing.”
What does that look like in practice? A great deal of it will involve working with other government agencies to ensure the clarity and consistency of the regulatory framework itself, and to make it easier for producers—whether they’re seeking to enter the space, or whether they’re more established—to navigate what can often feel like a sea of red tape. “There is a lot of information out there, and we haven’t quite consolidated it well enough just yet,” Martin explains. He also wants to ensure that the language is easy to understand: “What we try to do is translate from the business community to the regulatory framework.”
Another challenge is the frequent gaps and inconsistencies among the different levels of government when it comes to definitions and regulations, not to mention the work that often has to be done to modernize them: “County code could be just as out of date as state code,” he notes. Martin’s hope is that by collaborating with other offices and agencies to bridge the gaps, he can make it easier for would-be producers to enter the industry. The goal, he explains, is to “create an environment where agricultural businesses and farms…have the equal opportunity to pursue these types of operations. [By] making sure we’re having those conversations, and not only playing catchup, we can allow those exciting business opportunities that are being presented today, [and help] agriculture evolve…in the future.” It’s the kind of work that can have an impact far beyond individual farmers and producers. “If we learned anything recently, it was that it’s important to keep our food supply chain close,” Martin notes. Given the vital role that these producers play, he believes that “anybody who wants to grow and contribute to our food system” should have a pathway to doing so.
Creating Opportunities in an Evolving Industry
Complaints about regulators failing to keep pace with industry innovations are a dime a dozen in virtually every sector. In the agriculture space, Martin sees it as critical to keep up with changes in the ways people are doing business, and to make space for them within the state’s regulatory framework. “Business is out there evolving, and adapting, and finding new practices that we just have to make sure we’re aware of,” he explains. This means he and his colleagues have to ensure “we understand the trajectory of the industry, and that we’re…communicating and collaborating to make sure that those are allowable uses with pretty easy paths forward.”
Along with those looking to enter the industry, Martin wants to support older, more established farmers seeking to adapt to an ever-evolving business landscape. “Helping the industries that have been around forever, that are struggling, and opening the doors to these new industries and ideas that can keep farms [running],” he explains, is equally important, noting that his office is here to support farmers as they work to modernize their business models or make other planning decisions. “There’s a lot of opportunity there,” he says.
Here to Help
Martin encourages any value-added producer (or aspiring producer) looking for guidance to reach out to him: “Whether [you have] a question, concern, regulatory challenge, even an idea, or just a mild inquiry, [I’m] always available,” he says. “We’re trying to build relationships with each and every one of [the state’s producers].” So far, he’s heard from people at a variety of stages, and has sought to provide them with tailored solutions. For example, “I’ve been contacted by prospective farmer[s] with an idea, whether it be, ‘Hey, I’m interested in growing this, and maybe turning into this. What do I need to consider? Who do I need to talk to?’” In those cases, he’s connected the producers to relevant local departments. Other requests have been more urgent, including “time-sensitive calls, where someone has gotten halfway through a process and has run into challenges, and maybe that challenge has turned into some significant requirements that cost a lot more than initially anticipated.” In cases like that, Martin will work “to come up with creative solutions, and just a better understand[ing]” of what the producer needs.
Above all, as he settles into his new position, Martin is looking forward to supporting the people who work in an industry that’s so vital to Maryland. “It’s a really neat industry to be a part of, and to watch it expand every day,” he says, expressing his admiration for the state’s growers, watermen, and producers: “There’s a passion and a patience within that profession of farming that seems unmatched, and so it’s certainly an honor to be able to provide these resources and services to our local community and businesses.”