One-Acre and Ayers-Elliott at the Small Farm Conference!

Why do we need small farms?

Richard A. Henson Center at UMES

Richard A. Henson Center at UMES

The world-wide trend in agriculture has been to specialize and scale-up. Bigger operations can be more efficient and reduce the cost of agriculture products. So why have a whole conference about small-scale agriculture? Should we even be promoting small farms?

During the Opening Remarks, speakers made it clear that small farms have their place in U.S. agriculture. University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) was established as an 1890s college. As mentioned in a previous blog, the 1890s land-grant colleges were established to provide education in several careers deemed critical to the country’s future and agriculture was one of them. Then, the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 helped bring land-grant agriculture programs to those who could not come to the classroom.

In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a report Building a Future with

2011 NYFC Survey

2011 NYFC Survey

Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed. The authors conducted a national survey of young and beginning farmers and the results of the survey helped to form the basis of the Coalition’s recommendations for addressing the challenges that they face. It is significant that 78% of all beginning farmers surveyed did not grow up on a farm.

It is impossible to cover all of the Conference sessions in this blog so I will just focus on a few.

Small is profitable. The 43,560 Challenge from the Virginia State University is all about how to earn a dollar per square foot on one-acre of land. Not all farms are high earners and some farms have both on-farm and off-farm incomes to pay the bills. The University project reported on its efforts to show the income potential of small farms.

cindyblogSmall builds community. Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott was the keynote speaker. With the financial acumen of a New York City investment banker (which she was) and the heart of a community builder, she has created Foot Print Farms in her hometown of Jackson Mississippi. The farm comprises not only her goat herd and vegetable fields. She is also making land available for others to begin farming.  Her main message is about farming, but it is also about building and transforming communities, which drew her an invitation on the Katie Couric show and also a nice feature story on the USDA blog.

One suggestion that she had for beginning farmers in the audience was to make use of the vast array of USDA programs.

Small farms are incubators for beginning farmers. They are especially important for those who did not grow up on a farm and cannot buy or lease large tracts of farmland. Small farms are places to experiment, to learn how to grow, to learn about labor issues, to learn how to use equipment, to learn how to market, to learn how to be good neighbors and to reach out to communities.

Big farms, like the ones you see so often on the Eastern Shore, are important engines of our ag economy, but small farms have their place too. For beginning farmers, the Small Farm Conference was a great place to learn where and how to begin.

 

 

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We want our food money back!

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 8.34.51 PM

Panelists: Micah Martin, Brett Grohsgal, Will Kreamer, Bernie Fowler, Jr, Doug Hill, and Jason Smith

By the middle of the 20th century, we had lost the capacity to feed ourselves. As the century progressed, we had become increasingly enamored with everything shiny and new. By the 1960s, people were even walking on the moon! Innovation seemed limitless. Everything new  and from the grocery store was better than “home grown,”  or so we thought. Grocery stores became our source of food and major corporations became our aggregators, processors and distributors.

Today, we’ve become like the little kids who went to school and the bullies stole our lunch money and gave us something barely edible to eat. . . .literally.

However, in the last twenty years, some consumers have begun to rebel, not liking the “freshness” and taste of store-purchased food, and not happy with the dozens of indecipherable ingredients on the labels of processed food. More recently, the desire for local food has emerged as the number one  trend in grocery stores and restaurants.

Agriculture still generates $8 billion for Maryland’s economy, but most local food that we grow here is processed out of state and sold by a third party. Without the ability to aggregate, distribute, process, and sell our own food, we give up freshness, taste, and economic benefit. On average, the USDA estimates that farmers only keep about 7% of the total food dollar.  That is beginning to change.

On November 5th, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission hosted a Buyer Grower Workshop–Production and Sales to Retail/Wholesale Markets.

Growth in Direct sales has been steady in Maryland. Between 2007 and 2012 it grew 32%. In Southern Maryland, it grew 58%.

Growth in Direct Sales for Human Consumption has been steady in Maryland. Between 2007 and 2012 it grew 32%. In Southern Maryland, it grew 58%.

We invited attendees to discuss how to rebuild the local food system. Christine Bergmark, Executive Director, noted the incredible growth of direct sales to consumers in the region and in the state. However, she encouraged the audience to think beyond the direct sales from farm to consumer. The workshop began with a panel discussion including two buyers, two farmers, and two food hubs representatives:

  • Micah Martin – Woodberry Kitchen
  • Jason M. Smith – Wegmans
  • Brett Grohsgal – Even’ Star Organic Farm
  • Doug Hill – Cabin Creek Heritage Farm
  • William Kreamer – Chesapeake’s Bounty
  • Bernie Fowler, Jr. – Farming 4 Hunger

Each speaker was asked to respond to a series of questions about business practices and challenges. Afterward there was a Q and A from the audience.

The 50+ farmers, chefs, and fishermen peppered the panel members with questions and were eager to learn more about their operations. Discussions continued on into the break. Attendees seemed passionate about exploring the relationship between locally sourced food and a healthy community.

More to come on this topic in the next few months!

 

 

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Extension- the first step on the path to farm success

I have been associated with Extension folks for 40 years, but this week I was

Ben Beale (standing) and Hanna Sheer presenting the Beginning Farmer Success website

Ben Beale (standing) and Hanna Sheer presenting the Beginning Farmer Success website

immersed! I was one of a half-dozen speakers participating in two workshops to provide Extension personnel and other ag professionals with resources for assisting beginning farmers.

Training is the life of an extension agent – both receiving and disseminating the latest information for farmers. This year, Extension is celebrating its 100th year anniversary with the signing of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and now it is rolling out new resources for beginning farmers which I will describe at the end of this post.

How did Extension get started?

Extension is an outgrowth of the Morrill Act, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862. The Morrill Act gave authority for the federal government to provide land for colleges, at least one for each state, where a leading objective of the college included teaching agriculture. The University of Maryland is an example of a land-grant college.

In 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed to increase federal support for land-grant colleges and Congress added a “Separate but Equal” provision for the establishment of colleges for African-Americans. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is an example of a college established as a result of the Morrill Act of 1890, with a mission targeted to diverse audiences with special emphasis on those with limited resources to help them improve their quality of life.

Of course, a classroom setting is an effective approach to teach agriculture, but it

2013 Organic Vegetable Tour at the Upper Marlboro Experimental Station

2013 Organic Vegetable Tour at the Upper Marlboro Experimental Station

does not reach all those who are already farming and those who can not afford to attend college. In the late 19th century, Seaman Knapp became convinced that demonstrations carried out by farmers were the most effective way to disseminate good farming methods. He is considered the father of Extension and believed that “What a man hears, he may doubt; what he sees he may also doubt; but what he does, he cannot doubt.” He helped create the establishment of experimental research stations across the nation.

Extension is part of the University of Maryland system. The University shares agricultural research and provides training in its Extension offices throughout the state. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is home to the Small Farm Institute which “coordinates research and Extension outreach for evaluation and development of alternative agriculture technologies and marketing strategies that help maintain small family farm operations.” Next week, it is holding its 11th Annual Small Farm Conference.

Beginning Farmer Success 

Beginning Farmer Success

Beginning Farmer Success

In the last 30 years, the percentage of farmers 34 and younger has dropped from 16% of all farmers to 6% and the farming community has become increasingly alarmed that there will not be enough farmers in the future. Therefore the USDA provided monies for states to apply to initiate Beginning Farmer and Rancher programs. The University of Maryland Extension received a grant in 2012 and staff held two workshops this week to inform extension agents and other ag professionals about the resources that have been developed. Extension has put together an impressive website of beginning farmer resources on its new webpage.

Extension staff also introduced the other members of the Beginner Farmer grant team: Future Harvest CASA (Beginning Farmer Training Program) and Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (Maryland FarmLINK and Mentor Match Program). Finally, staff recognized the Extension Agents who have set up their own beginning farmer training programs over the years and they shared their experiences and suggestions for running successful programs.

Of course, farmers have many diverse interests and philosophies as to proper agricultural methods. However, all will benefit by starting out using the resources of Maryland Extension.

 

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We will have “made it” when there are locally sourced bakeries!

I LOVE bread. I am not very good in the kitchen, but years ago, I had grown weary of bread 010store-bought bread with a list of chemicals I did not recognize and I resolved to make my own. For a number of years (I won’t say how many), I tortured the family with my attempts at yeast breads that were barely edible. Then about two years ago, two transformative events occurred. First, my wife found a recipe that I could follow successfully, almost without fail. Second, local farmer Wilson Freeland found a hard red winter wheat (with the help of county extension agent Herb Reed),  that would grow well on his White Cliff Farm in Southern Maryland.

Hard red wheat is used to make bread. Most wheat grown in Maryland is soft red winter wheat and it is used for making cakes, pastries, flat breads, and crackers. Mr. Freeland bought his own stone-ground mill and I was one of his first customers.

Rice at Next Step Produce

Rice at Next Step Produce

Then last year I had another local supplier when Next Step Produce began raising rice, buckwheat, rye and wheat organically. They purchased equipment to thresh, winnow and mill the grain. I now alternate between both sources!

A bushel of wheat weighs about 60 pounds. The market price for wheat has ranged from $5.00 to $8.00 per bushel in the last few years, or roughly 11 cents a pound. In 2012, Maryland farmers raised 14 million bushels of wheat or 840 million pounds, with a market value of $87 million dollars.

According to the USDA Agricultural Resource Marketing Center, per capita consumption wheatof wheat flour has hovered around 134.5 pounds in the last few years. With a population of nearly 6 million residents, Maryland consumes roughly 800 million pounds of wheat product and, since most Maryland wheat is not processed in Maryland, our state’s economy gets very little of that income. The milled price for wheat flour would retail for at least $1 per pound to several dollars per pound for organic flour, many times more than the price per bushel from wholesale markets.

There used to be hundreds of mills in Maryland – dozens in my home  county –Calvert. The creek behind my house powered a mill. You can still see the dam formed in the stream bed used to funnel the stream that turned the mill. Mill Creek is a common name for streams. There is only one large mill in Maryland according to a Baltimore Sun article published last year. The Wilkins Rogers mill is located in Ellicott City and its headquarters is in Halethorpe, Pennsylania. The Ellicott City mill operations may be consolidated to Halethorpe within 10 years.

But according to the Sun article, the long-term trend might mean the return of more local mills to Maryland. “Where it once made sense to mill wheat where it was grown and ship flour across the nation, it is now more cost effective to haul trainloads of grain to the country’s population centers on the coasts and produce flour there,” said James A. Bair, vice president of the North American Millers Association.

I am loving my locally sourced flour and make a loaf or two every week. I encourage more Marylanders to find their local source and help keep our dollars local. But I realize that most people don’t make bread. Therefore, I believe that we will have made it when we have locally-sourced bakeries throughout the state!

My Bread Recipe (prep takes about 20 minutes and bread in a total of 90 minutes)

  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (hard red winter wheat or hard red spring wheat)
  • 1/2 cup rye flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 cups warm water

Method

Add yeast and honey into 1/2 cup of warm water in a small bowl. Stir and let sit a few minutes until yeast begins to work. In a large bowl, mix flour and salt and then stir in the yeast mixture. Then add remaining warm water (about 1 1/2 cups) until all ingredients are moist.

Butter a 9″ x 5″ pan and add moistened ingredients. Set aside to rise in warm place for 12 to 18 minutes until mixture rises to fill the pan. Heat oven to 390 degrees and bake for about 33 minutes.

Note: Maryland Farm and Harvest will be presenting a story on November 11th about Aunt Annie’s pretzels, produced in Maryland using Maryland produced wheat flour. Aunt Annie’s headquarters are in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (just 80 miles from Baltimore) and it has store locations throughout the country.

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Townies, it is time to get back in the dirt!

‘Agri’ came before ‘culture’

Before agriculture, humans were nomads by necessity. They could not store food for long periods, so they were in constant search for food. Through the use of crude tools to turn the soil and the accidental or intentional interbreeding of grasses, they began to produce enough grain to store. As their farming processes improved, fewer family members had to be devoted to food production and more people could come together for mutual protection and communication. From those interactions, cultures developed.Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 4.37.04 AM

According to Charles Mann, author of 1491, “In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art—the hallmarks of civilization—flourished.”

Maryland towns were located based on their potential to aggregate (and sometimes process) farm and other land base resources. Those which were the most successful grew the largest. And in those towns, culture usually flourished.

After the Industrial Revolution, towns lost much of their resource-based commerce

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.13.36 AMThe Industrial Revolution affected the economies of rural towns in several ways. First, workers were drawn to cities with manufacturing jobs, and away from rural areas. Then large food processing facilities out-competed smaller processing facilities so that local food and resource-based jobs were no longer local. Finally, large agricultural operations out-competed smaller ones so that the smaller towns were left surrounded by commodity farms with products that they could not directly utilize. No doubt, industrialized food have reduced our food budget as a percentage of our incomes, but at what cost?

Globalization has only made the situation crazier, with chickens being raised in the U.S., shipped to China for processing and returned to the U.S. for sale. Does anyone else feel that this is crazy?

When we separate ourselves from our food sources, we become disconnected with nature and uninformed about the social and environmental methods used to produce our food.  We also lose a key opportunity to connect with others in our community over an product that we all obviously need.

With the local food movement, some towns are finding new life.

Harwick Vermont has seen hard times, as highlighted in Ben Hewitt’s book The Town thathardwick Food Saved. Established to mine granite from a neighboring mountain, the town began to dry up with the market demand for granite. In the last decade or so, there has been a resolve to establish the town as a mecca for local food. A food co-op is a main retail operation in the little town. The town has created a food incubator, the Vermont Food Venture Center, for start-up businesses using local food. They have a community vegetable garden known as Atkins Field. And, of course, it is surrounded by entrepreneurial farmers who provide and amazing variety of goods from a rocky Northern state. All of this has happened in a town the size of Chesapeake Beach.

It did not happen in a vacuum. Many of the good things happening in Hardwick are the result of The Center for an Agricultural Economy, comprised of community leaders.

north beach farmers market 008North Beach, Maryland took the initiative to establish a farmers’ market several years ago, in the belief that it would bring more life to the town. They closed a street, advertised widely, and brought in entertainment to support the market kickoff.  The efforts were very effective and now stores and restaurants stay open longer, acknowledging the crowds coming to the markets.

Agriculture came before culture. Communities need economic activity to prosper. We should not allow corporate activities and globalization to take away our economic potential. In figuring out where to start, we only need to look down at our plates. Now where did that food come from?

 

 

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Stewardship is a top priority at Next Step Produce

Nineteen of us traveled to Newburg, Md to participate in the START Farmer’s Network tour of Next Step Produce.  Heinz Thomet  and Gabrielle Lajoie purchased the farm in 1999 after carefully looking for the best place to grow organic produce for direct sale to consumers.  I covered some of the reasons why they purchased the Charles County farm in a blog post last year.

Heinz Thomet

Heinz Thomet

A number of the farm guests participated in this START Farmer’s Network tour for the first time, intrigued by the reputation of the farmers who grow a wide variety of vegetables year around, plus a wide selection of small grains and specialty fruits. Prior to touring the farm, Heinz took a few minutes to discuss the mission of Next Step Produce — We specialize in seasonal organic vegetables, grains, herbs, flowers, and fruits, grown in harmony with nature — and share his concerns about  agriculture’s impact on the earth. He has devoted a great deal of time to the study of climate change and noted that when organic matter decreases in the soil, it releases carbon. He also expressed concerns about monocultures and the decrease in bees. The farmers at Next Step Produce give careful consideration to how their farming practices impact nature.

Electric Work Cart

Electric Work Cart

Next Step Produce is certified organic. The farmers use compost and cover crops to build organic matter in the soils. The cover crops also provide flowers for bees throughout the growing season.

They use solar panels to reduce the farm’s energy dependence on fossil fuels and added a solar panel to power their electric work cart. They installed a high efficiency wood burning stove to heat their greenhouses in the winter.

2014 Rice Crop

2014 Rice Crop

They are also not afraid to take on new crops, constantly looking for products not sold elsewhere. One of their biggest experiments is small grains, producing hard wheat, soft wheat, buckwheat, barley, oats, rye and even rice (as reported in a Washington Post article last year).

In addition to showing us the crops currently in production, Heinz passed on a few suggestions for beginning farmers.

  1. Think ahead when seeking a farm. Other than great soil quality and access to markets (mentioned in a previous post), Heinz believes that a farmer should find enough farmland to set land aside each year for cover crops, in addition to the land needed for farming. If possible, a farmer should also seek a farm that will accommodate  more than one family. He added that it often takes more than one family (there are three full-time farmers assisting Heinz and Gabrielle) to produce a crop and it is helpful to have housing when you are trying to attract good farm labor.
  2. Take good care of your soil. In addition to the environmental and global benefits of high organic matter in your soil, Heinz discussed how healthy soil can help a farm survive a major storm. As an example, a few years ago, they experienced a heavy rain event. During a break in the storm he noticed that the soils had absorbed 5 inches without excessive ponding or erosion. Most farm fields cannot handle such a heavy rainfall. Of course, that ability to absorb water also helps farmland to “weather” dry spells.
  3. Look for ways to fill niche markets where you can sell at retail price. Heinz pointed out that a small farm needs to sell for a reasonable retail price as much as possible. Otherwise, the farm is not viable financially. He focuses on one major farmer’s market and he tries to sell unique products that don’t compete with those already being offered. Therefore, he is always experimenting with new crops and varieties.

Next Step Produce is a not only a productive working farm. It is a great agricultural experiment in stewardship and farm profitability!

 

 

 

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Realtor’s class in Maryland’s biggest farm county was a success!

Frederick County, Maryland is blessed with a pleasant climate and productive farmland soils.

Historic barn near Urbana

Historic barn near Urbana

Frederick had 181,512 acres of farmland in 2012, according to USDA Ag census figures, the most farmland  of any county in the state. The market value of agricultural products was $150 million. However the county lost 20,500 acres of farmland between 2007 and 2012, the greatest loss of farmland in the state.

Paul Goeringer, legal specialist at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Maryland, and I held a class at the Frederick County Association of Realtors to equip 26 realtors with the tools and information necessary to help their clients identify, analyze and purchase or lease farmland.

Paul Goeringer speaking to the class

Paul Goeringer speaking to the class

The future of agriculture depends on the next generation of farmers being able to get access to of farmland. Being so close to Washington D.C., Frederick could help feed the huge metropolitan area or it could become a victim of suburban sprawl.  I was happy to see so many Frederick County realtors interested in selling and leasing farmland and wanting to know about the tools and resources available to help farmers in the land selection process.

Their names names and contact information will be added to the List of Realtor Graduates on Maryland FarmLINK’s Realtor Resources pages. Maryland FarmLINK is a free resource and there is no charge to post a property for sale or lease.

 

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Maryland FarmLINK is gaining ground!

IMG_0007_2Maryland FarmLINK is gaining traction as a web tool to help farmers gain access to land, either by purchase or lease, thanks to land owners, realtors and farm support groups interested in continuing agriculture and forestry in Maryland. Our website picked up 595 new members in FY ’14, an increase of 82%. The number of monthly visits to the site increased by 65% to 5,087 by the end of FY ’14, with the majority seeking farmland.

We cannot tell you how many transactions occurred because communications between land owner and seeker are confidential. However, I am aware of a number of successes and they are attracting more interest.

Helping Beginning Farmers 

Our hope is to  connect all types of farms being offered for sale or lease with farmers who wish to farm them. That includes large-scale farm operators, hobby farmers and beginning farmers looking for their first farm to lease or own. However, I have to admit being most excited when we can help a beginning farmer get started.

Earlier this week, the National Geographic posted an article, American Farmers are Growing Old, With Spiraling Costs Keeping Out Young. Their story happens to occur in the cherry region of Northport Michigan where I vacationed this summer and posted a blog. The NG article highlights the challenges of beginning farmers and a couple who appear to be making it despite the spiraling costs. As with Michigan farmland, Maryland averages approximately $7,000 per acre, more than most beginning farmers can afford.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 6.48.00 AMOn the Maryland FarmLINK website, we ask those seeking farmland to complete a survey. Of those surveyed,  33 of the 76 are 34 and under in age and 64% have been farming 10 years or less. Most are hoping to have a diversified operation, including vegetables and livestock.

While farmers surveyed would like to own their land, roughly 40% of those surveyed would consider a lease and another 25% would actually prefer a lease.

That is why I am so glad to see a significant increase in properties being leased that are posted on our Maryland FarmLINK site this year. By far the largest offering of properties for lease occurred  when a real estate group posted 26 farms on the Eastern Shore totaling 3,500 acres this month. An agent at the firm reported that they have been showing properties to beginning farmers. Bids are due October 15th.

A website is just a website; a vehicle for opportunity. It is farmers, land owners and agents

Beginning farmers on the Sassafras Creek Farm Tour last month

Beginning farmers on the Sassafras Creek Farm Tour last month

who really care about farming who make the difference. Quoting Wendell Berry, “it all turns on affection.” Affection for the soil, for animals, for growing things, for real, honest labor—these are what is bringing young adults and young retirees back into agriculture. And it is affection for people, and passing on the opportunity for farming, that propels land owners, extension folk, Farmlink people, realtors and others to make the improbable connections so that the next generation of farmers is ready. In Maryland, we are steadily gaining ground!

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The mighty AMPs and the local food movement

Last week, I got to meet a group of Agricultural Marketing Professionals (AMPs) and to follow them on part of their Southern Maryland tour of successful agricultural marketing ventures. I believe that AMPs are essential to the local food movement because of the history and timing of the development of zoning and health regulations in the U.S.

Planning and zoning departments and local health departments did not exist as recently as one hundred years ago. The need for zoning and food health inspectors was a result of the Industrial Revolution, which radically changed land use in America and changed what we ate and the way food was Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 6.34.30 AMprepared.

In agrarian societies of the past, there was little need for zoning or health regulations. All the land uses were similar and the farmers produced, processed and consumed their own food or purchased food from those they knew and trusted. The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Large factories sprung up next to residential areas, commercial businesses created congestion and spilled out onto travel ways. Workers drawn to industry jobs moved to urban centers. Middle and upper-class families sought safer, quieter neighborhoods out in the countryside, creating sprawl. Zoning regulations were developed to promote health, safety and welfare as development occurred.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 6.24.11 AMAs to food safety issues, industries began producing chemicals and additives for food to increase shelf life and appeal for processed foods being sold to families who no longer had time to produce and process their own food. Consumer deaths and consumer fraud due to improper food adulterations resulted in the development of the 1906 US Pure Food and Drug Act and eventually the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which provided specific authority for factory inspections and established food standards.

According to a report of the Maryland Association of Health Officers, the first local health department in Maryland was created in 1922 and all counties had local departments by 1934. Enforcement of processed food inspections and food handling was eventually handed down to the local health departments which operate somewhat autonomously.

At the time that county planning and zoning departments and local health departments were being established across the country, locally sourced food was being replaced by brilliantly packaged and marketed food products. Highly processed breads, margarine,  cheese spreads and cake mixes replaced local staples and were prepared for long shelf life. There was little need for local regulations to address small-scale locally sourced products. They no longer existed.

When the local food movement appeared in the last few decades, the production of  value-added items on a farm was not allowed by zoning regulations in most jurisdictions. If they were allowed, then their production was subject to health department standards intended for large-scale factory processing.

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Montpelier Farms

A few proactive counties began to hire AMPs to assist farmers in the process of developing value-added production, such as acidified foods, creameries and wineries. Gradually, ag entrepreneurs have been able to re-establish local resource-based farm enterprises. Last week’s AMPs farm tour provided witness to the persistence of the farmers and/or the value of the the AMPs.

I joined the tour briefly on Wednesday to visit Montpelier Farms in Upper Marlboro and discuss zoning and health regulations with the AMPs. Mike and Adrianne Dunn opened their agritourism business in 2008 to provide an outlet for farm products and to give the region’s residents an opportunity to get out on a farm and learn about agriculture. The AMPs and the Dunns discussed the challenges of introducing uses like corn mazes and on-farm events when county regulations don’t address newly emerging uses.

AMPS tour 002

Joe-Sam Swann discusses the farm operation with the AMPs

Thursday morning, I rejoined the group to learn the latest about Swann Farms in Northern Calvert County. It has become one of the largest wholesale vegetable and fruit operations in the region. Joe-Sam Swann discussed the emerging trends in the sale of fresh vegetables and fruits and the growing interest in pick-your-own. He also mentioned the highly successful North Beach Farmers Market, where they sell their products. He noted that market was one of the first in the state to allow the sale of local wine.

My next stop was Chesapeake’s Bounty where Will Kreamer has created a marketing niche AMPS tour 012that is essential for farmers and watermen. His philosophy is sustainable, ecological and hyperlocal. He tries to provide his customers with the best sustainably raised meats, vegetables, fruits and plants that come from the closest farm sources. Likewise, the seafood that he sells comes from Maryland waters in compliance with regulations intended to sustain the harvest for area watermen.

AMPS tour 025

Owner Tal Petty disccuses the production of oysters

Another exciting new farming trend is emerging from the waters. As many are aware, the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has been at less than 1% of historic levels. In recent years, Maryland “oyster farmers” have been raising triploid oysters in cages on the river bottoms with the help and support of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and, in some cases, the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO). We visited Hollywood Oyster Company in St. Mary’s County where the team is growing a million oysters this year and as many as 3 million next year.

These are just a few of the exciting projects that the AMPs visited. Each of these businesses has had to deal with zoning and health department issues. Many have benefited from an AMP to help facilitate the development of the business. All of the businesses have created jobs, helped to diversify our local food options and have improved our food security. A mighty good story in the making!

 

Posted in ag law, agricultural law, Agricultural Marketing Professionals, AMPs, Farm Finance, locally sourced food, Maryland zoning regulation, National Ag News, New Farmers, New Ideas in Farming, saving farming, seafood, So. Maryland Topics, Sustainable Farmers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does a passion for growing food mean a life of poverty? Response to a NYTimes op-ed

The new and beginning farmers of today do not pursue the career to get rich. Most are drawn by the chance to work outside, to be their own bosses and to grow food to sell. A recent New York Times Letter to the Editor by Bren Smith entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” (Sunday Review, Aug. 9) states that the “much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.” The letter disturbed me so much that I put it aside for a few weeks, with a decision to address, in a blog post, the core issue—can you make a decent life farming today?

Difficult Truths

My first reaction to the article was that the author was exaggerating. After all, if you sit around a table with any group of friends or associates, will they admit that they are doing well financially? It is much more likely that they will say that they don’t have two dimes to rub together.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 4.50.21 AMHowever, the author’s reference to the ag statistics is true. According to the USDA Ag Census figures, most farmers don’t look that good financially, especially small-scale farmers, and most rely on at least one off-farm job per family to pay the bills. What distorts the federal figures is what the USDA until recently defined as “residential/lifestyle farms,” which is the largest type of farm in the U.S.

The term “residential/lifestyle” was used because many of the operators on these farms view farming as an avocation and their farm as a place to live where they can enjoy a rural lifestyle, not earn their principal income.  Take, for example, the farm owners who have off-farm jobs and who are incorporating recreation with the notion of farming. An example might be 20 acres of land with a dozen horses, some of which may be boarded or bred.

IMG_0008_2Others are farming for the product, not the income. They don’t want to lose money, but making lots of money is secondary to the primary purpose – quality food. A good example is a recent story “Retirees Turn to Farming as an Encore Career where 74-year old beginning farmer Dave Massey isn’t farming for the money. He gets a pension and retirement health care benefits. Anything he makes from the farm gets recycled back into the business. “Money is not my major motivation,” he says.

Still, I think that Mr. Smith’s impression is correct for many serious, hardworking, small-scale farmers.  They are putting in long hours with few resources and little return. They need affordable access to land, equipment, training and markets and a level playing field. They are competing with mega farms and huge corporations in global markets.  I have noted in a previous blog that federal policy appears to have been driving farmers toward a pattern of over-production to compete. As I mentioned in a previous post, in 1973, Congress adopted a farm bill that “introduced target prices and deficiency payments to replace price supports, coupled with low commodity loan rates, to increase producer reliance on markets and allow for free movement of commodities at world prices.”  As a result, farmers scaled up and specialized to compete and many farmers simply got out of the business.

Support and more realistic prospects

Where I might differ a little from Mr. Smith is that I know of many farm organizations who worked desperately to improve drafts of the 2014 Farm Bill and they actually bent the trajectory of the bill slightly toward helping the small-scale farmer. The Bill finally provides the opportunity for fruit and vegetable farmers to get crop insurance and it has allocated some money to assist with the development of food incubators and food hubs.

It would help still more if the federal government were to adopt better immigration policies. As it stands now the USDA has acknowledged that approximately 50% of all U.S. farm workers are not documented and many, I assume, are paid less than U.S. citizens. That puts the thousands of small-scale farmers who are operating legally at a huge disadvantage.

Many of Mr. Smith’s suggestions  for improving the prospects for small-scale farms are shared by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Much more can be done to help level the playing field for our farmers.

Of course, his article’s title may have been meant to just be provocative. Farming never has been easy, but there are small-scale farmers who are making a decent living, with and without assistance from off-farm income. My dad farmed his entire life, but often supplemented the family income during the fall and winter using his carpentry skills. However, that did not detract from his joy of farming or my joy of growing up on a farm.

Farming is a worthy profession with real results. I could never discourage a child from pursuing a career that can have such a positive effect on the world. If you wonder if that is true, visit a farmers market, roadside stand, CSA, etc. and witness the fruits of their work!

 

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