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Display placard outside convention hall

Valarie Brinsfield had a problem. Her daughter’s high school club needed a fundraising project to help provide healthcare services for mothers and babies. As a solution, Valarie suggested that the girls bake and sell a traditional favorite: sweet potato biscuits.

Although Valarie and her family live on a 300-acre farm near Vienna, Md., she had to buy the first batch of sweet potatoes. Twenty kids went to work filling orders, and their success ensured an encore. To fill the new demand, Valarie and her husband, John, decide to add five rows of sweet potatoes to their Chicone Farm’s crops. Then five became 10, and by the fourth year expanded into four acres.

By last year, the girls were making and selling 133 dozen biscuits. A major contract with a baby food processor had bumped the initial five rows to 37 acres of sweet potatoes, and the Brinsfields wanted new markets for their expanding crop.

Presenting Maryland’s best

Chicone Farms is illustrative of the food and beverage producers, growers and processors showing their wares at the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s annual Maryland’s Best Expo. Designed to put Maryland agricultural products in front of agents from school systems, restaurants, grocery stores, institutional kitchens, produce markets, and other buyers. The Expo offers an opportunity to shop — and taste — the latest gastronomic trends and meet potential local suppliers.

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A typical farm display

“The Maryland’s Best Expo is the premier event in the state where buyers from an array of industries can find all of the locally-produced products that Maryland consumers prefer,” said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder.

Agriculture departments in other Mid-Atlantic states also offer marketing support for their regional producers, but frequently emphasize processed foods.

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Inside the Expo, growers and buyers networking

“We still focus more on produce, fruit and veggies, and value-added goods,” said Stone Slade, a marketing specialist with the Agriculture Department. “We continue to see a demand for local, high-value, high-quality produce … The Expo is also a venue for people getting into the wholesale market, looking to find new buyers.”

Showcase for Culinary Trends

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Maryland's Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder, addressed the Expo

This year’s expo, held in Annapolis, showcased 70 Maryland producers, growers, and processors marketing a wide range of products. In its 17th year, the Expo has become a bellwether for gastronomic trends. Many of the foods “debuted” at the Expo will shortly appear in public. The Expo introduced me to blue catfish, “superfood” sauerkraut, locally roasted gourmet coffee, custom-decorated artisan chocolates, several unique spices, and regional cow and goat cheeses. At this year’s Expo, along with farms, the most numerous exhibitors seemed to be oyster suppliers, cheesemakers, coffee roasters, green growers and breweries. Three distilleries also presented their products.

“We are continuing to grow,” said Slade. “We have a fantastic consumer market in Maryland, and we are always finding new growers.”

The Expo also serves as concentrated networking session for the people making up the local culinary industry. Along with corporate buyers, attendees include press representatives, food bloggers, and agricultural organizations.

For the Brinsfields, the Expo was an opportunity to expand their market base and make new contacts. They had established a relationship with the Harris Teeter Supermarket chain and wanted additional contacts

“We came away feeling very positive,” said Valarie. “Our initial impression was that it was great!”

Chicone Farms Sweet Potato Biscuits

Makes 30 biscuits

1 cup shortening

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Valarie and John Brinsfield's Chicone Farm display.

4 cups sifted flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups cooked sweet potato

Cut the shortening into the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the sweet potato to form a big ball of dough. Roll 2 tablespoon balls of dough between your hands and shape into biscuits. Place the biscuits onto a cookie sheet and bake 20 minutes at 425 degrees F. Best if served warm.

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Visit his website at www.reedhellmanwordsmith.com.

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