Kevin Atticks. (Submitted Photo)

At the start of 2023, Kevin Atticks was fully immersed in his chosen career at Loyola University Maryland. That entailed serving as director of Apprentice House Press and as an affiliate assistant professor of communication; as well as running Grow & Fortify, the entity he founded to support agricultural concerns.

As it’s happened, much of what Atticks learned via Grow & Fortify, which published the first assessment of the state’s value-added agricultural industry ― and revealed that wineries, creameries, agritourism, etc., yield 74,000 jobs and bring an economic wallop of more than $20.6 billion annually to the state’s economy ― led new Gov. Wes Moore to name him secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

How did the new job come about?

My name was suggested for Gov. Moore’s consideration by a colleague and the governor and I had good discussions throughout his campaign. We found that our objectives aligned perfectly regarding farms and bolstering the industry, especially in rural Maryland.

What are Maryland’s strengths compared to other states in the region?

Maryland is like no other state because no matter where a farm is located, it has access to at least two major metropolitan areas within a short drive, which is critical to distribution and sales efforts. That obviously includes Baltimore and Washington, but farms on the Eastern Shore also have easy access to Wilmington and Philadelphia, and to the south, Hampton Roads; those in Southern Maryland can also access Hampton Roads, as well as Richmond; and those in Western Maryland can reach Pittsburgh and perhaps even Philadelphia.

That gives farmers in the state the ability to sell anything from fruits, vegetables, dairy products, etc., to anything that is made with them from baked goods, ice cream, salsa, etc., without fear of spoilage. In addition, we can offer the harvest of the Chesapeake Bay. That’s not only part of our identity, but it offers a huge economic advantage that we have to capitalize on.

How are supply chain issues affecting Maryland’s agriculture ecosystem?

That’s a two-way street. Getting equipment and product is so unbelievably expensive now due to a lack of supply. Then when you talk about sales and exports, there are similar issues concerning getting materials. like wrapping and boxes, for shipping.

What are the threats to the state’s farms?

Development pressure is intense, largely because of our proximity to those major metropolitan areas. We also have other issues, such as identifying many thousands of acres to establish solar power facilities. The state has a renewable energy goal of 50% by 2030. That’s admirable, but we shouldn’t choose generating solar energy over growing food. We need to find balance.

What can be done to help keep farms from being sold?

We can encourage farmers to put their property in land preservation programs, which essentially entails selling their development rights. We still have to promote the industry and give them new opportunities to become more profitable.

What’s being done from a marketing standpoint?

We annually invest $100,000 in Maryland’s Best marketing program. We do advertising and hold buyer/grower meetings, as well as set up markets for the farmers and the fishermen. For example, we’re currently promoting the sale of blue catfish, an invasive species we’re trying to harvest to eradication.

How much money is invested in agritourism?

Agritourism is a focus. It meets a few goals: first, it provides farms with additional income, and secondly, it connects Marylanders to farms. They can visit a farm, pick their own fruit, interact with animals and have a great time. With 295 farms participating and an average of $33,550 generated per farm (up almost 10,000 from 2012), it’s evolved into a significant value-added product.

How is aquaculture being addressed by your office?

It’s promoted via our seafood marketing office. We don’t have a regulatory role, so we’re focused on harvesting the bay’s bounty and helping fishermen and aquaculturists grow their businesses. As is the case with agritourism, our role with aquaculture is to ensure people know about it.

What are your thoughts on indoor farming?

We have several indoor farms throughout the state, including the 235,000-square-foot Warwick Mushroom Farm in Cecil County. There are compromises with indoor (ample power and space) as well as outdoor (weather concerns) farms, but any place that grows food is a worthy effort. Consider for instance, urban farms. They grow food in communities that may not otherwise have access to fresh produce.

How is technology being used to address worker shortages?

Technology is part of the answer in terms of achieving a higher yield and reducing inputs, like fertilizers. Today’s farm equipment includes GPS that can be fine-tuned, as well as drones that scout for diseases. We’ve even had a farmer on the Eastern Shore use drones to measure deer damage to indicate where to plant different crops and mitigate their feasting of prime crops. There are other innovations, too, such as a new process for growing algae that can be used in various scenarios.

How are analytics being used in the farming community?

Everything is data-driven. The farmers have monitors to check the soil, wind speed, temperature and whatever else they need to plant and fertilize at the right time. It’s led to more efficient crop management and heightened profits.

How is climate change affecting the state’s annual harvest?

For some farmers, it’s marked the end of planting certain crops, or at least certain varieties; however, they can shift and adapt. For instance, there were certain grapes in the wine industry that were grown 30 years ago that are no longer viable, so the focus has turned to new varieties. On the Eastern Shore, we also have saltwater intrusion, which has also led to farmers taking new approaches.

How does your office address food insecurity?

A few weeks ago, Gov. Moore came to our agency to celebrate the issuance of checks for $3 million each for the Maryland Food Bank and the Capital Area Food Bank. The money is to be used to buy local products. The idea is that if you’re buying local, and therefore fresher, products, you’ll be healthier.

We also promote the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program by offering people in need coupons to buy local, fresh food.

What’s been your biggest eye-opener so far?

In some parts of the country, it’s pretty clear what they grow, but I’ve been amazed by our diversity. We grow culturally-specific grains and produce; all manner of fruit and livestock; mushrooms; ingredients for beer, wine and spirits; plus all of the wonderful aquaculture from the Bay. It’s truly incredible.

What laws will you look to update in Session 2024?

That’s to be determined, but there will be a focus on clearing the regulatory path for further food production, processing, packaging and sale.

What is your office’s biggest challenge today?

Increasing awareness of what’s available here and how critical agriculture is in Maryland. It’s the number one industry in the state, but most Marylanders likely don’t know that. Or addressing development pressure. Know that farming is the first industry. If we aren’t making food, nothing else matters.