When we think of agriculture on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sprawling poultry houses and the grain fields that feed them come to mind. After all, chickens have long outnumbered humans on the Delmarva Peninsula, where their abundance looms large over the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

But Bob Miller is part of a different breed of agriculture that is growing on the Shore, one that’s harder to capture in Bay models but is arguably doing as much to keep patches of farmland from becoming houses.

Miller’s family dairy in Caroline County began selling bottled milk, cream and butter locally in 2009 out of necessity as much as novelty. After his parents moved from New Jersey to Maryland and began raising cows on grass rather than feed, low milk prices in the 2000s forced the family to decide between getting big or getting out.

But he found another option by forming Nice Farms Creamery to process their milk on-site, which  allowed the family to continue making a living milking about 40 cows on about 200 acres.

Direct-to-consumer sales of specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables in Maryland increased 24 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to a review of Maryland’s Best, a state program that promotes local agriculture sales. The program includes farming-related enterprises like the Nice Farms Creamery in its directory of local products.

Advocates say increasing sales from small-scale farms directly to consumers of produce, animal products and their derivatives could not only have fewer environmental consequences but also help regenerate rural markets.

“The economy of the Eastern Shore is stagnant,” said Ann Yonkers, co-founder of the FreshFarm chain of farmers’ markets in the Washington, DC, metro area and owner of Pot Pie Farm near St. Michael’s, MD. The Eastern Shore, like many rural communities in the United States, has seen less of an economic recovery from the 2008 recession than urban areas of the state. In October 2016, Maryland’s 4.2-percent unemployment rate was below the national rate of 4.9 percent. But most Shore counties had jobless rates higher than the state average, and four of them had rates up to 6.8 percent, exceeding the national average.

“The thing we need is markets,” Yonkers said. “If you give local, small farms a market, that is an engine that can actually grow the economy.”

A study released in mid-December used analytical modeling to confirm Yonker’s hunch that the Shore’s economy and environment would benefit from a more diversified food system, one in which more fruits and vegetables are grown alongside corn, soybeans, wheat and chickens.

“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,” said Professor Gregory Farley, the study’s co-author and director of the Chesapeake College’s Center for Leadership in Environmental Education. “Also, it potentially generates less pollution.”

Resurrecting a food factory

The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on preserving the region’s agricultural and rural landscapes, devoted its 17th annual conference at the Chesapeake Beach Club in November to exploring a similar thesis.

The organization is so intrigued by the potential of revived regional markets that it’s collaborating on an $18.5-million project to resurrect a derelict food factory in Cambridge as a thriving hub of agricultural commerce. Cross Street Partners, a firm known for its work restoring historic structures in Baltimore, is the developer for the project.

Katie Parks, director of the Center for Towns at the ESLC, said the nonprofit wants to create more opportunities for food and farming businesses which, in turn, would provide jobs and more food-buying choices to a rural region in desperate need of both.

Renovating the 60,000-square-foot factory of the former Phillips Packing Company will provide space for a new food market, commercial kitchen and incubator for food businesses — not to mention the planned oyster bar and microbrewery — at a space that in 1937 purchased more than $1 million worth of produce from local farmers to produce canned goods.

“When we think of the long-term vitality of the Eastern Shore, we want [future] generations to continue to have agriculture as the base economic driver,” Parks said. “How can we create a place for that?”

Neoma Rohman, director of the Mid-Shore Food System Coalition, also said a thriving local food economy could address many of the dichotomies she sees in the five-county region in the heart of the peninsula.

“How is it that 50 percent of the state is in farmland and one in 10 is food insecure?” she asked, referencing a commonly used statistic about the number of residents in the state who don’t know where they’ll get their next meal.

Growing up in Oregon, Rohman said she watched her family struggle when new regulations to protect the endangered spotted owl hammered the logging industry and the region’s economy almost overnight. The Eastern Shore’s concentration of farms tied to one major industry, she said, makes it just as susceptible to catastrophe, such as a sudden drop in crop earnings or disease.

“It was our only industry,” she said. “Now, you can understand my concern about the viability of the Shore.”

Joseph Bartenfelder, Maryland’s agriculture secretary, said the Eastern Shore used to be a hotbed of diversified crop production, with tomatoes and other vegetables heading to canneries and then to the wider market. He envisions the project in Cambridge as a way to return some of those opportunities to Maryland farmers.

Restoring the former packing plant “will provide a real opportunity, not only for farmers and the agricultural community, but a real boost to the whole Cambridge economy,” said Bartenfelder, who grows vegetables for fresh markets in rotation with grains and alongside two poultry houses on his own farm in Preston.

The Chesapeake College study, produced with a firm called Eastern Shore Agriculture Sustains, LLC, found that greater crop diversity has the potential to improve both the region’s economy and its environment. Diversifying what’s grown on the land would also make farmers less vulnerable; An Avian flu outbreak or plummeting grain prices could potentially take hundreds of acres out of farm production.

The report’s authors used economic modeling to analyze the local impact of a hypothetical $13.6 million increase in sales to the vegetable-farming sector versus the poultry industry, which, at the time the study was conducted, was expected to receive such a boost from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. That pact’s future now seems dim, without a major overhaul.

Over the course of a year, such an investment would have produced 100 jobs in the poultry industry, the report said. But it would have yielded 127 vegetable and fruit-farming jobs, the authors said, which likely would have garnered higher wages and generated 16.5 percent more tax revenue for the region.

The modeling indicated that vegetable farming also would, on average, generate one-fifth of the water pollution and one-half of the greenhouse gases that poultry farming would. The report said the relative environmental impact of grain and poultry farming versus vegetable production merits more research. But studies have shown that rotating and diversifying crops can improve soil health and reduce the need for fertilizer and pesticides.

To generate the same revenue, the modeling found that produce farming would need just 36 percent of the land area that grain and poultry growing would require. That led the study’s authors to conclude that there is room for more than one type of farming on the Shore.

Alternative to getting big

Growing food locally is often touted as a solution for a lack of fresh produce in urban areas like Baltimore, but it can also provide economic opportunities and nutrition to rural regions. Kevin Atticks, who has helmed the Maryland Wineries Association since 2013, said his new firm, Grow & Fortify, was first hired by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to produce a report on the economic potential of value-added agriculture, a sector that includes turning local farm products into goods like beer, jam or cheese.

Through that work, Atticks found the Eastern Shore well-positioned to tap into these metro markets and into a growing demand across the mid-Atlantic for locally produced goods.

“When you look at the central part of Maryland, we have all these small farms so close to all this population. There aren’t many places like that,” Atticks said at a conference on the subject in December that his company helped to organize.

He said the type of agriculture that makes more money from a product by transforming it into something that can be sold directly to consumers is uniquely positioned to succeed in the region, especially on small patches of farmland that are broken up by development.

Nearly 670 farm operators responded to the latest census of agriculture for Maryland in 2012 that they sold value-added products. That was three times as many as the previous decade. That increase inspired the state to launch its Maryland’s Best program, which promotes locally grown and made goods.

But new businesses in the nascent industry also face obstacles when they are the first in a county to turn tomatoes into ketchup or a barn into a wine tasting room. County councils often don’t know whether to consider them retailers or manufacturers, so they end up applying rules and red tape from both sectors.

Miller, 34, said his family’s business had to overcome its share of regulatory hurdles to begin selling milk locally, but that it fit with their decision to make more money by adding value to the milk they produced.

“I don’t think we should have to sell milk 100 miles away from our farm,” said Miller, whose wife and siblings are also involved in the family business. “It’s better for the Bay and the environment if we sell our milk within an hour of the farm.”

Farley, author of the Chesapeake College study, said its findings about the benefits of local food systems should encourage the state to support farmers who are diversifying their operations to include new crops, even as they maintain and improve existing operations.

“This isn’t a case of either-or,” he said.

Bartenfelder said he’s seeing more of that among Maryland producers already as grain growers add a few rows of grapes to sell to wineries or you-pick strawberries and a roadside produce stand. It’s an effort his department is actively promoting, investing $500,000 into branding and advertising for Maryland-grown products over the five-year period that ended in 2014.

“All types of operations are trying to find a bit of a niche so that family members can stay in the farm business,” he said. “It’s just so hard to survive on one commodity now.”