By Priscilla Wentworth and Greg Bowen
The new generation of farmers are resourceful. Our latest case in point is Michael Protas of One Acre Farm in Montgomery County. We learned of his operation because of a farm tour arranged by Future Harvest CASA about Scaling Up Sustainably.
Like most beginning farmers today, Michael started with a desire to farm, but no farm background and no land. Mike started by volunteering on a farm near College Station, Pennsylvania, where he developed a passion for farming. He later apprenticed on One Straw Farm, a large organic farm in Baltimore County. During his apprenticeship, he lived in a house with 25 migrant workers, an experience he said “was life changing for the better.” Hard work and a lifestyle out of his previous realm of existence (film production) did not dampen his enthusiasm for farming.
Despite the farm’s name, Mike is currently farming on close to 5 acres. The story Mike told us about how he scaled up quickly from one acre, is rather creative. In his search for a place to farm, he was able to lease some land in Montgomery County, raising vegetables for markets. In 2011, he was fortunate to come upon 30 acres of land owned by Adventist hospital, which leased the land to him for ten years. The hospital has additionally been a great partnership for Mike, one that he never expected. The farm hosts an educational component as well, a summer camp for kids in partnership with the hospital each year; not something he originally planned for but he says it is what allowed him to ramp up and be so successful to date. “The educational component helped to diversify the farm,” he said.
Michael’s farm did indeed begin as a one-acre farm, a wise move for someone with his level of experience as a farm operator. Farming successfully is much more than learning how to grow food. Michael latched onto one of the most successful ways of farming that the local food movement has utilized, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Mike also quickly realized he couldn’t farm alone and grow, so in 2013 after recruiting another laborer, he was able to double production the following year. And as he has been farming, he has been focusing on sustainable methods of farming that let the soil’s microorganisms do the work, exploring techniques such as zone tillage, modified no-till, and cover cropping for vegetable production.
Farmers usually want to scale up but they need equipment to do it. Not everyone grew up on a farm or knows how to fix equipment.
About halfway through the tour, we stopped in the field near Mike’s equipment. He mentioned to the group about tractordata.com. He owns a Case III 50 horsepower tractor that he said was worth the money. He also purchased a manure spreader for $1,500, and a waterwheel he bought in year two which was inexpensive and has been a lifesaver on efficiency. He didn’t buy everything upfront, instead purchasing equipment overtime as the farm grew. He is not a mechanic so he won’t purchase anything complicated like a seed drill, he said, preferring to stick with basic equipment. Mike also participated in Kiva Zip to obtain a loan to purchase a $4,000 piece of new equipment.
Sarah Miller runs the New Farmer Project for Montgomery County Economic Development. She was on the tour to mention that a seed drill and other equipment can be rented from Montgomery county’s low-cost farm rental program.
Sarah was joined by Chuck Schuster, an Extension agent in Montgomery County. They noted that to rent the equipment you must live in Montgomery County, sign a contract, do a quick training, and pay a small fee to rent the equipment, which includes a grain drill, plastic mulch lifter, manure spreader, and walk behind tiller. To reserve the Montgomery County equipment, contact Karen Walker, 301-590-2855, Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Equipment rental options in other Maryland counties are listed on the Maryland FarmLINK website at Equipment for Rent.
Successful farms rarely follow the same path as they scale up. They identify needs, rent when practical and look for opportunities and/or collaborations to keep out-of-pocket costs as low as possible.