When the word “innovation” is brought up in a general business discussion, agriculture is rarely an industry that readily comes to people’s minds. While the dusty roads, barns and rural views remain similar to their predecessors, today’s farms are embracing technology to diversify and transform their farming operation, making them more efficient and economically diverse.

In July, four local farms had the opportunity to diversify, thanks to the Howard County Agricultural Innovation Grant issued by the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA). For several years, these grants have provided opportunities for farmers to expand or develop new markets for their farm enterprises.

“Farmers have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a drive to work hard, so when looking at ways to assist Howard County’s agricultural community, it was important to address their innovate ideas,” said Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager at the HCEDA. “By offering a small grant program, it has allowed our farmers to take their innovative ideas to enter new markets, bring the next generation into the farm operation and provide value-added products for their consumers.”

The most recent grants recipients were Carroll Mill Farm, Heritage Hill Farm, Merry Acres Farm and Mullinix Malting Co.; each project was unique to the operations and assisted these farms in diversifying their operation.

Carroll Mill Farm received funding that helped to build a hops processing facility for its recent expansion into the hops growing industry. With Maryland’s microbrewing industry continuing to grow, breweries from around the county and state are looking to work with local farms to provide them with hops, barley and wheat.

Heritage Hill Farm is a diversified animal operation, where composting and returning nutrients back to the soil is a priority. “It used to take an hour to turn each one of the compost piles with the loader,” said Keith Ohlinger, owner of Heritage Hill Farm. Now, due to the assistance of the Agricultural Innovation Grant and a matching grant from the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp., he finally purchased a small windrow turner.

“Now, I can now turn all of the piles on the farm in 15 minutes,” said Ohlinger.

For Howie Feaga at Merry Acres Farm, expanding the hay making operation had been a goal. With the help of the grant, Feaga was able to build a hay storage building to protect his hay commodity and enable him to produce more hay.

With the increase in the craft alcohol market and no malting facility in Howard County, Chris Mullinix saw an opportunity to provide a unique service at his farm. By malting the barley, rye and wheat for both distilleries and microbreweries, he has the opportunity to keep the grains as local as possible, and in the process open a new market for the farming community.

“It has been a win-win for the county, as our farms are creating jobs and keeping … dollars in the county,” said Zimmerman.

Applications for the next round of Howard County Agricultural Grants are due Jan. 15; the application can be found at www.hceda.org/agriculture.