Young Farmer Fundraiser draws a crowd!

fb5The Calvert County Farm Bureau decided to celebrate this year’s National Agriculture Week by holding a Farm to Table Breakfast to support young farmers last Saturday. They locally sourced most of the food and farm support businesses helped to pay farmers for local products.

Perhaps it was Ag Week. Perhaps it was the opportunity to support young farmers or the attraction of locally grown food. Either way, the 300+ attendees were enthusiastic about the food and took time to explore the booths around the Banquet Hall at the Calvert County Fairgrounds.

fb3Young Farmer groups have been growing over the last few years. Last fall, about 70 young farmers from the five Southern Maryland counties attended an event. A decade ago, not all of the counties even had young farmer groups. There are also Future Farmers of America chapters in most of the Southern Maryland counties and agriculture is being taught once again in at least three county school systems.

The local food movement has brought more young farmers back to the farm and elected officials are beginning to realize that regional food systems can  also build local economies.

However, there is no time to waste. In the last few decades, the number of young farmers in Calvert County has ccyfdropped off at an alarming rate. And this same story has been playing out across the region, the state and the country.

The 2012 Ag Census shows the first small rebound in the number of young farmers. In my work with Maryland FarmLINK, I have seen the trend continue.

The Farm to Table Breakfast was a great example of how we can eat our way back to a more robust farming industry, build a healthier local economy and support our young farmers!

 

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Lively discussion and stories at the Southern Maryland Leasing Workshop

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Jenny Rhodes, far left of the photo

At the workshop on March 16th, roughly 2/3rds of the 36 attendees were leasing land or have land to lease. Some of those who leased land told humorous anecdotes about failed leasing agreements. The remaining third of attendees were actively seeking land to lease.

I was joined by Jenny Rhodes, Extension agent from Queen Anne’s County, Mae Johnson, Director of the Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service, and Paul Goeringer, an attorney at University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

Roughly 64% of all Maryland farmland is leased and nearly all of the leases are arranged by a handshake. That method may be the simplest but it is fraught with potential misunderstandings and disagreements as evidenced by the anecdotes brought up by the attendees.

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Mae Johnson

My role was to highlight the changes in agriculture and the free leasing resources on Maryland FarmLINK for farmers and land owners. Jenny described her own experiences as a farmer and extension agent with leasing and provided suggestions as to how to improve communication between land owners and farmers leasing the land. Mae described Maryland’s Right to Farm legislation and how her Conflict Resolution Service can keep both parties out of court when misunderstandings turn into disagreements.

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Paul Goeringer

Paul Goeringer highlighted Maryland’s leasing laws and pressed the point that both parties benefit from a good written lease (a recommendation from all four presenters). Then he presented the key elements of a lease.

We started the meeting with a good meal, had an engaged and appreciative audience and finished on time. We even witnessed discussions between owners and farmers seeking land. Next, our road tour turns to Lower Eastern Shore on April 6th in Princess Anne!

Posted in access to farmland, Farmlink, land link, leasing farmland, Maryland Conflict Resolution Service, Maryland Farmlink, Maryland Right to Farm, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Young Farmers ponder creating a chapter of the NYFC in our region

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 7.41.45 AMThe National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) has only been around for a few years, but it has already become an effective national voice for young farmers. It played a role in developing young farmer programs that were included in the 14 Farm Bill and it has written publications on helping young farmers get access to land. NYFC’s vision:  “a country where young people who are willing to work, get trained and take a little risk can support themselves and their families in farming.”

Brittany reviews answers

Brittany Dooling leading the discussion at Flying Plow Farm

Thus far, there are 26 NYFC chapters in 25 states. Brittany Dooling arranged a formational meeting for a new chapter at Flying Plow Farm in Rising Sun Maryland on March 7th. Flying Plow Farm was a perfect venue. It is owned by a young family that purchased the farm in 2013 after success on a smaller leased farm in another county. They grow vegetables and livestock to supply their growing CSA. Last Saturday, the snow was still piled high against the high tunnels, but snow was melting and Spring was in the air.

Roughly thirty attendees crowded into one of the farm’s high tunnels and Brittany began with a review of answers to some of the

Two responses to the question

Two responses to the question.

icebreaker questions posted earlier, such as why did attendees farm and what are the challenges? After identifying and discussing a number  of common reasons why they farm and challenges to success, Brittany asked what the attendees hoped an NYFC chapter could accomplish. As I expected, one of their goals would be advocacy to remove barriers for young farmer success. However, a more common interest in forming a chapter was networking and social interaction. As one of the farmers put it, farming can involve a great deal of solitary work and sometimes they need a social outlet with others who share common interests. Currently, there is not a statewide group that uniquely fulfills all of those needs.

It was a good beginning for a future NYFC chapter. If you are interested, contact Brittany at: shherbs@gmail.com

Posted in beginning farmers, CSA, family farms, National Young Farmers Coalition, New Farmers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

New local food processing and marketing options – food incubators

Many of us were surprised that the growth in the number of farmers markets was farmersmarkettrendappearing to flatten out in the U.S. And in its report to Congress, the USDA reported that between 2007 and 2012 the number of farms with direct-to-consumer sales increased 5.5 percent, but with no increase in direct-to-consumer sales. However, the report speculated that local food might be moving through other marketing channels, like grocery stores or institutions, the value of which is not measured by the Census of Agriculture. I believe that this is the case.

At the MOFFA Winter Meeting on February 21st, I had the opportunity to learn about some of those new marketing opportunities in a session entitled Connecting with Chefs & Distributors. 

Terrance Murphy discussed opportunities with Whole Foods Market and his own great experiences working with local farmers as a chef. Chris Miller discussed MOM’s Organic Market’s commitment to organically produced food and opportunities for local farmers to supply their stores locally. Several local farmers are already selling directly to MOMs. Four Seasons Food Distributor, out of Houston, Texas, is also a major supplier.

Jonas Singer

Jonas Singer

Jonas Singer is co-founder of Union Kitchen, a food incubator. It opened in 2012, out of a 7,300 sq. ft. warehouse in NE Washington, D.C. and its goal is “to build a platform and a megaphone for small businesses by providing a low-cost, low-risk, full-service kitchen for local businesses to grow and establish their operations.” One way they are doing it is by eliminating the need for start-ups to take on debt, purchase expensive equipment, sign a long-term lease, or some of the other risks entrepreneurs usually have to face.

Jonas noted that this allows new businesses to spend their time focusing on growing their businesses. That approach has worked amazingly well. In a little over two years, they have helped to start over 60 businesses and create over 300 jobs. For its success, Union Kitchen was one of the 10 finalists for USA TODAY’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2014.

Of course, most of these emerging food enterprises are interested in local food as a way to make them unique and more connected to their communities. There is also more interest from regional and national food distributors to use locally sourced food. Jonas commented that Coastal Produce has been great at helping them supply locally sourced food. However, Union Kitchen is interested in doing more to work with local farmers.

Food incubators like Union Kitchen help to level the playing field for local business. And local, sustainability produced food can help them produce a niche. It is working. Fourteen of their members are nominated in a total of nine categories for Best of DC, 2015!

We grow better when we grow together.

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At the MOFFA Winter Meeting – soil health tops the agenda

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.21.58 PMFace it. Most humans treat soil like. . .well dirt. At USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), there is a new urgency for people to know more about our soil, as good soil is disappearing due to erosion, compaction and loss of organic matter. NRCS has created a new Soil Health Division to focus on education. Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association (MOFFA) attendees were fortunate to have the Division’s new Chief, Dr. Bianca Moebius Clune, to be the featured speaker at their Winter Meeting.

Of course, organic farmers must know and appreciate the value of healthy soil. But withoutScreen Shot 2015-02-25 at 7.04.55 PM  being able to use herbicides, most organic farmers have to till their soil. Dr. Clune says that intensive tillage is “like a little earthquake” for the soil. It breaks up soil structure, damages the biota, and can compact soil and reduce absorption. It can even affect pest management. For organic farmers, some tillage is inevitable to reduce weed pressure, but they can take actions to reduce the impact and they can monitor the conditions of the soil.

Dr. Clune provided information on how to take shovel tests to check for  compaction and how to evaluate the roots for soil health and where to send your soil for testing to get a more complete analysis of soil condition, such as the Cornell Soil Health Assessment.

She urged farmers to get in touch with local NRCS offices for assistance and to  be aware of the EQIP Organic Initiative that “provides financial assistance to implement a broad set of conservation practices to assist organic producers in addressing resource concerns including, but not limited to assistance with:

  • Developing a conservation plan
  • Establishing buffer zones
  • Planning and installing pollinator habitat
  • Improving soil quality and organic matter while minimizing erosion
  • Developing a grazing plan and supportive livestock practices
  • Improving irrigation efficiency
  • Enhancing cropping rotations and nutrient management”

To learn more contact Lindsay Haines, Lindsay.haines@wdc.usda.org, an EQIP program specialist.

 

Posted in Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association, MOFFA, Organic farming, soil health, Sustainable Farmers, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

CSAs — new data and two workshops

In its report to congress this month, the USDA noted that farms that are selling food directly for human consumption have a greater survival rate than farms who market through wholesale channels. They have a lower debt-to-asset ratio which gives them better ability to repay loans. Perhaps more significantly, they capture practically the whole food dollar, rather that the typical 10% that the average U.S. farmer gets.

There may be another factor as well – the farmer-consumer connection. As an example, IMG_0008_2Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares represent a bond or commitment between buyer and producer. The buyer gets the freshest food and gets to learn how that food is produced. The producer gets upfront money to produce the crop and a willingness from the buyer to work through the challenges and joys of crop production. Through that relationship often comes a desire for the farmer to succeed. A similar connection is formed at farmers markets. That type of bond or connection does not exist when consumers buy their produce or meats at the chain grocery store.

CSAs have become one of the most effective ways for farmers to reconnect with the consumer. The concept dates all the way back to 1982, according to Mother Earth News. Back then, Dr. Booker Whatley described a system where “…The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the [farm]. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market. The farmer has to seek out people—city folks, mostly—to be members of the club.”

DSCN2892A hundred years ago, fresh food was supplied locally from gardens and by mom and pop stores throughout the country. Then came grocery chains and improved transportation systems that provided a wider variety of canned and packaged foods at cheaper prices. After WWI, the chains also began selling meat, milk and produce and local farmers lost their place on grocery shelves. Local produce farmers could not supply year-round production. Local livestock farms were replaced by large-scale operations concentrated in a few states. Grocery chains preferred to work with large-scale suppliers.

However, in the USDA report, it was noted that direct-to-consumer prices are lower than grocery store prices in all four seasons. With high tunnels, farmers are stretching their food production seasons. And livestock producers are now able to sell the products from their farms and at farmers markets.

Of course the key is having consumers who are committed to the local food system. Many have figured out over time that the convenience of a major food chain is not everything. They are concerned that in the race to industrialize farming, some food production operations have sacrificed freshness and taste and/or created greater impacts on the environment and on workers.

To maintain that strong relationship with the consumer, farm practices need to be transparent, they need to provide a good product, and they need to follow good business practices. Two workshops are being held in the next few weeks about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) labor issues and membership agreements between consumers and CSA operators: February 26th in Frederick and March 3rd in Annapolis.

Let’s keep that local food connection going strong!

 

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Ready to try value-added? Start here.

Sometimes, farm profitability is just one value-added step away. Lots of farmers have the great ideas, but they lack the support to get there.

Jeff

Jeff Williams

On February 5th, the Maryland Agricultural Marketing Professionals (AMPs) met to discuss how to help farmers can take their products to the next level and I got to sit in. We heard from Jeff Williams, Program Specialist at Rural Business-Cooperative Service (Jeff.Williams2@de.usda.gov) and he filled us in on USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant. Last year, Maryland farmers did well, garnering $2 million out of $21 million in grant money available across the U.S. However, ten good Maryland farms were not successful, so Jeff advised the AMPs what farmers should know  to improve their chance of success.

Romano

Romano Vineyard & Winery is one of the farms that made a successful proposal

He said that the 50 page application may seem daunting but it is intended to provide all the necessary information and advice to compete. Two of the main reasons for failure are requesting non-eligible funds (clearly identified in the application) and weak or incomplete applications and budgets. There is a 50% local match, but there are many ways to meet that requirement.

One option is to seek assistance from the Maryland Agricultural & Resource Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO).

Steve McHenry

Steve McHenry

Steve McHenry, Executive Director of MARBIDCO, was also a presenter at the AMPs meeting and he goes out of his way to support farmers. For example the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant application notice and deadline varies each year. To assist Maryland farmers who may want to use MARBIDCO funds as a match, he informs farmers that his deadline is 2-weeks prior to the federal deadline, whenever that is. That helps the farmers put together a good draft application (which Jeff Williams is willing to review ahead of time) while he and his staff have time to review the application for a possible MARBIDCO match.

MARBIDCO helps farmers stepping up to value-added in three other ways.

1. Local government Ag/RBI cost share programs. Applications for this program must be submitted by a county or regional economic development director or an agricultural marketing specialist.

2. Maryland Urban Agriculture Commercial Lending Incentive Grants (in municipalities). It is offered with the financial support of Farm Credit and is designed to meet the financing needs of beginning urban farmers by providing an incentive for them to seek commercial lender financing for the development of their agricultural enterprises. The maximum amount of the grant is $7,500.

3. Maryland Value-Added Producer Grants. Capital asset-type projects designed to help farmers, forest product operations, and seafood processors to expand or diversify their business operations.

An announcement for the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant is expected in the next couple of months and you can find out more about MARBIDCO’s grants on it’s website.  Value-added dreamers, sharpen your pencils!

Posted in AMPs, MARBIDCO, Uncategorized, Value-added, Value-Added Producer Grant | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

A small farm revolution?

For the title of this blog, I borrowed a chapter title from John Ikerd’s book Small Farms are Real Farms. In that book, he strongly defends the role that small farms play in their communities and the signs he sees of their renaissance.

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Lindsey Lusher Shute

In the last few years, new voices have risen along with his, for the advancement of small farms. Lindsey Lusher Shute, President of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and previously featured in my blog, is one of those voices. I was fortunate to be present when she spoke at the Future Harvest CASA Conference last month and she also stopped by the Maryland FarmLINK booth to chat.

During her keynote, Lindsay told about her passion for small farms and the challenges that she and her husband faced when starting one. She said that her farming adventure began on a one-acre portion of a dairy farm in the Hudson Valley region. Owners had told their children to do something else besides farming and now the owners were nearing retirement.

However, they welcomed two energetic young people to their farm. Eventually the owners

Owners and crew at Hearty Roots

Owners and crew at Hearty Roots Community Farm (from website)

began to see a future in farming after witnessing their successes and their will to succeed. Later, that farm was preserved by the children. But when the family decided to sell the farm, the Shutes realized that the price of the land was way out of reach and they had to look for other land to lease. Eventually, they were able to purchase a smaller parcel, now Hearty Roots Community Farm,  where they have a large Community Supported Agriculture CSA operation.

By the time that they had purchased the farm, they had come to realize that small farms had few advocates and no one was helping the next generation of farmers. They hosted a group of young farmers to discuss the challenges that beginning farmers face and, around the kitchen table, they decided to form a national group, the National Young Farmers Coalition, to represent their interests. The Coalition’s mission — “We envision a country where young people who are willing to work, get trained and take a little risk can support themselves and their families in farming.” It has grown to 50,000 members.

At the conference, Lindsay also spoke about a NYT article “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To be Farmers” that caused me such angst that it prompted a blog response.  Lindsey had the same reaction, and drew similar conclusions. The author’s impression may be correct that many hardworking, small-scale farmers are struggling to make a living, but she would never advise her children not to farm. There is more to life than a good salary, though it sure helps!

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 6.07.03 AMNearly all farms in Maryland are categorized as small farms. Small farms are real farms and John Ikerd’s book is inspiring. His vision and message are consistent with that of Wendell Berry and our country’s founding fathers. Small farms are the cornerstone of a strong society. They are good for the environment, good for communities, good for local economies. Ikerd also acknowledges that under the current system, many small farms are not profitable, but he says not to dismiss them. In the end, he says that “sustainable small farms are better alternatives than getting bigger, giving in, or getting out. . . It’s time for a small farm revolution in America.”

We all need to work a little harder for their success.

 

 

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The Appalachia Region Gets it!

Md40At the Appalachia Grows Conference last weekend, I sensed a resolve to make the local food system work. Garrett County already has a food hub – the Garrett Growers Cooperative, Inc. It has been primarily selling to restaurants,but Extension Agent Willie Lantz said that they have been working with Frostburg State University to sell food to the cafeteria there too. At the evening dinner held for beginning farmers, attendees were treated to a tasty dinner of locally sourced food provided by the cafeteria.

A high tunnel vendor at a nearby table said that farmers in the Appalachia region, particularly West Virginia, were actively using the resources of the USDA NRCS Season High Tunnel Initiative to help them grow food in their region. Local food keeps the money in the local economy and it creates jobs, which the Appalachia Region sorely needs.

Willie Lantz featured in youtube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v2twYri9P4

Willie Lantz featured in youtube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v2twYri9P4

Frostburg Grows is a very cool project that won a 2014 Sustainability Growth Award from the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission. They have taken deserted, mined land  and turned it into an “innovative 5-acre greenhouse and shade house complex designed to train community members for high quality jobs while producing local food and tree seedlings.” Solar panels provide the energy to pump rainwater collected off the high tunnels to water the plants inside the tunnels.

Between census years 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers under 35 grew by 20%. At the conference, there was a great deal of interest in marketing strategies to sell direct to the consumer and in ways to get access to more land, much of which is more affordable than in the rest of the state.

That quiet resolve to succeed was evident in the faces of the attendees. I look forward to a return of the Appalachia Grows Conference next year to see how they have progressed.

 

 

Posted in access to farmland, beginning farmers, food hubs, Frostburg Grows, Garrett Growers Cooperative, locally sourced food, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Saving family farms in Maryland – level access to markets

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 7.10.19 AMThis blog is the last in a series on saving family farms in Maryland. In the first blog, I highlighted the need for beginning farmers. In the second and third blogs, I addressed access to land and infrastructure needs. In this blog, I discuss how to create a level access to markets.

The local food movement has given us hope that we can maintain family farms in Maryland. For decades, I have heard of farmers telling their children that there is no future in farming. That attitude is changing. Now more farm children are returning to farms. And clearly, more people care about family farms and want to know how their food is grown.

However, the playing field is not level. Recently, National Public Radio covered an 18-month investigation by a reporter from the Los Angeles Times which described working conditions on mega-farms in Mexico.  According to the reporter, the mega-farms are mistreating workers and paying them $8 to $12 per day, hardly on par with regulations and expectations in the U.S. The story also noted that major U.S. food chains are purchasing from these farms.

Farmers in Maryland face additional challenges in trying to provide more locally-sourced food.  In the 19th century, and early 20th century, most grain, canning and food processing operations left the state and local health regulations were not designed for small scale food processing operations. Meanwhile, chain stores out-competed local food markets in the 20th century. Few locally owned stores still exist and local farmers have a tough time negotiating square deals with most chain stores.

Without local food stores, farmers selling retail were literally kicked to the curb. If farmersScreen Shot 2015-01-22 at 6.32.12 AM wanted to sell the food themselves, they had to sell at roadside stands or in farmers markets, where local zoning would permit them. In commercial shopping centers, chain grocery stores typically would require landlords to impose covenants restricting local farm sales. To take advantage of the local food movement, some chains have established local market sections in their stores, but “local” can be as much as a 300-400 mile radius and farmers are  subject to their terms and whims. Many farmers have stories about working with chains. After the picture of the farm went up in the food isle, the produce orders would disappear.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 6.39.33 AMHere are possible solutions to help farmers get level access to markets.

1. Encourage counties to include goals that promote local food systems in their comprehensive plans and adopt zoning ordinances that permit value-added production on farms.

2. Insist that our legislators oppose trade agreements that create unfair competition for our farmers. They should not have to compete with food from countries with weak environment, labor and food safety standards.

3. Work with businesses and government to rebuild local food aggregation systems and distribution systems, such as

  • -More local food transport systems.
  • -More indoor and year-around markets.
  • -Better market sites in towns, such as around village squares and other activity centers.

4. Tell the stories of farmers who provide great local farm products.

5. Support a food system that is sustainable and treats everyone in the food system fairly.

Giving farmers level access to markets will build the local economy, create jobs and help insure that our food is fresh and safe.

 

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