Interview: Farmer, Susie Hance-Wells

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Wildlife. If you can’t beat them, join them

By Priscilla Wentworth and Susan McQuilkin, SMADC

Increasingly, farmers come up against wildlife management for both crop damage and food safety. No matter what we do, it seems these pesky creatures remain just as motivated as we are.

As buyers began asking growers to clear wildlife habitat areas near production fields, dramatically changing farming landscape across the U.S., researchers are now realizing that eradicating habitat around farm fields is not necessarily making food safer from pathogens. For example it has been noted that farms which cleared away wildlife habitat, after the west coast spinach scare contamination, E. Coli becquote.wildlife.on.farmsame more common.

There seems to be value in living with the natural vegetation of the land and using it to your advantage in farming. For a while it seemed agriculture moved away from this model and we still see buyers demanding unrealistic food safety standards.

Perhaps, finding ways to coexist might ultimately be the best way to preserve wildlife and ensure farming practices that promote stewardship of the land. How might we best coexist with the true owners of the land, the creatures of the wild?

A few promising practices to deter wildlife

  • planting low-risk crops between leafy green vegetables and pathogen sources (e.g., grazeable lands)
  • buffering farm fields with noncrop vegetation to filter pathogens from runoff
  • attracting livestock away from upstream waterways with water troughs, food supplements, and feed
  • creating secondary treatment wetlands and high-intensity grazing operations
  • exposing compost heaps to high temperatures through regular turning to enhance soil fertility without compromising food safety
  • maintaining diverse wildlife communities with fewer competent disease hosts (For these tips and more from this source see here and here.)

Producers of vegetables and fruits may also consider planting low-risk crops (requiring cooking before consumption) like corn and sweet potatoes as buffers along perimeters where wildlife graze and enter the fields. And reserve the middle sections of the fields for the high-risk crops (most commonly consumed raw) like tomatoes or textured surface vegetables such as broccoli that can host harmful bacteria. More information about high-risk and low-risk crops from Maryland Department of Agriculture can be found here.deer

Additionally, fencing, hoop houses, high tunnels, and greenhouses – although not the perfect solution – can help to minimize exposure of crops to pests and wildlife. Additionally, a landowner or agricultural lessee of a farm, may request that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) investigate damage caused by deer for the purpose of having the Department reduce the deer population in the area. Factors such as time of year and deer population are considered for crop damage permits.

Profitability

For many farmers keeping food safe is a precarious balance between realistic, achievable safe agricultural practices and the need to be profitable, or at least break even! Producers of vegetables, fruits, and livestock are not the only farmers experiencing profit loss from wildlife damage.  Some in the Maryland agritourism industry are intentionally planting food “sacrifice areas” or “food plots” for deer to protect their corn mazes and agricultural education plots. Many farms depend on these seasonal sales for year-round survival.

Where we seek to upset the balance of nature we often create bigger problems as a result, so it behooves us to find ways to live alongside the wildlife while keeping our food safe and farms profitable.

Posted in food safety regulations | Tagged , | Comments Off

Feeding the Foodshed

8.13.15

It’s August and it’s hot, and this year in particular there has been a lot of rain. Yet many of our local farmers, from vegetable and fruit producers to meat and dairy farms, are working hard to bring enough to market. Last week was National Farmers Market week, and Maryland farmers showed up to share the fruits of their labor with the locals. And locals showed up to purchase it! The bounty, spread out in vast array this time of year, is not only a symbol of how we can live healthier lives and eat a variety of food close to home- it’s a symbol of community. Community coming together to produce for each other and community coming together to purchase from each other.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Marketing Service Administrator Anne L. Alonzo recently announced the results of the 2014 Farmers Market Manager Survey. 8.13.15FeedingtheFoodshedApproximately 1,400 farmers market managers nationwide were surveyed and the results show that farmers markets are growing. “There are over 8,400 farmers markets in USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, and this survey shows that they are thriving and expanding as they provide healthy, local fresh fruit and vegetables to America’s families,” said Alonzo. “The survey will help market managers continue to succeed by giving them a better understanding of the local foods marketplace.” The national survey identified some compelling trends such as increased customer traffic, market managers looking for more vendors, a strong organic presence, and more.

What’s Happening Locally?

In Maryland it seems the farmers markets are seeing similar trends. Shelby Watson Hampton, Agricultural Marketing Specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture stated that, “Maryland is diverse, and every market is different, but this year what we’ve seen is that overall attendance is the same if not a little bit more.” She also said there has been a steady number of Maryland Department of Agriculture recognized farmers markets for the past three to four years. “Maryland currently has over 140 vibrant and flourishing farmers markets that are spread out over all 23 counties and Baltimore City.”

8.13.15FeedingtheFoodshed

A recent summer morning at the California Farmers Market in St. Mary’s County.

“These local markets are beneficial to their communities in may ways: they provide consumers with the opportunity to purchase fresh and local products, they increase communication between farmers and customers which helps develop a bond of trust between producer and consumer, and they serve as an important community gathering place where urban, suburban, and rural communities come together,” said Shelby.

And it sounds like the overall farmers market trends tend to be up in Southern Maryland too. Stacy Wilkerson, market manager for North Beach farmers market in Calvert County, said the market is seeing an increase in customers, an increase in vendors (with 20 farmers this season), and phone calls daily from interested new vendors. Stacy also noted that many restaurants have formed relationships with the vendors. In St. Mary’s County, the California Farmers Market manager and local produce farmer David Paulk reported something similar.  “The market is seeing a steady customer base that comes each week April through November”, said David. He also mentioned that number of farm vendors is growing.

8.13.15FeedingtheFoodshed

At the Riverdale Park farmers market last week folks filled out market surveys at SMADC tent.

Cia Morey, administrator at SMADC, attended the evening Riverdale Park Farmers Market in Prince George’s County last week to survey vendors and consumers and reported back that it’s a wonderful weekday evening market in an urban setting that has several farm vendors. The market also has prepared food vendors to take advantage of patrons picking up dinner as they shop for their weekly supply of local vegetables. Over 84% of the respondents of the survey indicated that they were specifically coming out to shop at the market that evening, and the average amount spent per buyer was just under $20. The market has excellent community and town support as they have provided a dedicated market manager and over many years this market has become a strong pillar of the town.

We have heard that sales tend to fluctuate at farmers markets, but that farmers still find markets to be important to meeting new customers, building relationships with them, and helping customers understand what it takes to grow the food they are feeding their families with. And working at a market myself, I see how getting together at the markets builds stronger communities.

For more information on regional farmers markets, or to get in touch about becoming a vendor, visit the Washington Post’s listing of regional farmers markets.

Posted in Farmers Markets, local food movement, locally sourced food | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Final word- “It all turns on affection!”

After working at Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC) for almost four years, I am heading back to Calvert County to serve as executive director of the American Chestnut Land Trust. I use my last blog post to provide my perspective on farming in Maryland.

First, I will confess that I was wrong about farming when I was involved in land preservation in Calvert for 32 years. I used to say that if you preserve land, then there will be farmers who step up and use it. I have since learned that food business trends, production surpluses and global trade agreements in the 20th century eliminated most profitable farming options on the East Coast.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 8.45.34 AMI have concluded that if there is going to be farming in Maryland by the end of the 21st century, our citizens will have to care about and support farmers. The local food movement matters for jobs creation, food security and food safety and it should expand into other farming and forestry products if we care about our working landscapes and the Bay.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 8.47.47 AM

My next observation is that the tobacco buyout was the greatest thing that happened to Southern Maryland farmers. It enabled them to move out of an industry that was slowly dying and to look into other farming opportunities. More importantly, it created SMADC, with its dedicated, hardworking staff. The Commission, formed primarily of farmers but also Extension, economists and elected officials, has created farmer opportunities, branding and outreach that simply would not have happened otherwise. The successes are pretty amazing.

Speaking of amazing, I am so pleased to have been able to get to know beginning farmers in the state through Maryland FarmLINK and the Mentor Match Program.

Local food products randomly pulled from the Bowen refrigerator and shelves

Local food products randomly pulled from the Bowen refrigerator and cupboard!

Obviously, none are going into farming to get rich. They care about food, they want to do something that is real and they are either fearless, or they simply want to raise food despite their fears. I have always been impressed by the resourcefulness of farmers and our newest farmers show just as much grit and resolve. And they are successful.

Through it all, I am convinced that with effective community support we can promote and maintain a successful agricultural economy, promote and maintain a strong, safe, and just society, and be good stewards of the earth.

The SMADC blog will be providing fresh new perspectives as Priscilla Wentworth takes the reins, working with other staffers to generate insight into trends affecting Maryland farmers. A masters degree in Communications from Georgetown University, experience working on farms and marketing for farmers and a native Southern Marylander, Priscilla brings passion and skills to the job!

Meanwhile, I will continue to consume food from Maryland’s bounty and support our working landscapes, while working to protect its rural resources. Borrowing Wendell Berry’s quote, “it all turns on affection.” If we have affection for our communities, the Bay ecosystem, our next generation and own health, we will all continue to support the kind of work that SMADC is doing to advance Maryland agriculture.

Posted in Farmlink, food security, Maryland Farmlink, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, Southern Maryland agriculture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Is America ready for “share-farm”?

We have all seen the trend toward larger farms, especially for commodity crops, dairy and tractorlarge-scale poultry operations. Closely related to that trend is the loss of younger farmers, particularly in the types of farm sectors that require major investments to start. Simply said, if you don’t inherit a large-scale operation, you can’t afford to buy the farm, or even the equipment to farm. The logical, long-term outcome of those trends is either corporate ownership of all such farms or the end of the industry, especially in places like Maryland with high land values.

bfsWith a grant from USDA, University of Maryland Extension initiated a Beginning Farmer Success program in 2012 to help new farmers get started. Extension also collaborated with two non-profits: Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission which initiated a Mentor Match Program and Future Harvest CASA, which utilized the funds to enhance its Beginning Farmer Training Program.  These programs have been successful, particularly for vegetable, fruit and small-scale poultry producers. Both non-profits hope to continue to assist beginning farmers even after the grant period ends August 31st.

http://freshstartlandenterprise.org.uk/

http://freshstartlandenterprise.org.uk/

However, neither program has been able to help beginning commodity farmers or large-scale livestock farmers to get their start.

In the UK, a new program is getting started called  share-farm, a national “matching service’ to bring retiring farmers together with aspiring new entrants. The goal is to create a pilot farm business matching service for young or new entrepreneurs seeking land and joint ventures with owners who have land to offer.

Such a program would be very useful in the U.S.! Who is ready to take the lead?

 

 

Posted in beginning farmers, Dairy, farm succession, Young farmers | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Buy Local Challenge Week continues to grow customers!

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.36.13 AMSeven years ago, it started as a way to create markets for Southern Maryland farmers who had transitioned out of tobacco and into food/drink production. Quickly it morphed into a statewide Buy Local Challenge Week.

Governor Hogan welcomes attendees

Governor Hogan welcomes attendees

As it matures, the event is serving as a celebration of accomplishments in the resourcing of locally produced food in Maryland. This year, perhaps the biggest celebration was at the Governor’s residence in Annapolis where Governor Hogan welcomed hundreds of happy grazers of offerings from 15 Maryland chefs, including the First Lady, who served up one of the best recipes of local food.

However, the main purpose of the week is to find new converts to local farm products. I helped to teach a class of realtors about selling and leasing farmland last week. As I often do at such events, I asked how many attendees had consumed some food produced locally in the last week. Perhaps a third raised their hands and only a few had heard of the Buy Local Challenge.

I believe that, as Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act.” Consuming local foods Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.34.29 AM helps to create local jobs. It helps to determine how food is produced (ask farmers at markets how often they get asked how their food is produced!). Consuming local foods helps to keep farmland out of the hands of developers. It keeps land open and porous and alive for nature’s systems to thrive. Local food production creates surpluses that are usually donated to those in desperate need of fresh healthy food. How cool is it that you can do all these things just by eating fresh healthy food?

Just a few more days in the Challenge to convert new disciples!

 

Posted in Buy Local Challenge, local food movement, locally sourced food, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off

Food hub workshop yields a bountiful crop of ideas

Next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wallace Center, Winrock International Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 5.07.06 PMknows more about food hubs than any other organization in the country. One program of the Center is the National Good Food Network which regularly holds webinars about food hubs. The USDA often supports the Wallace Center in its research and workshops on food hubs.

Vineyards at Dodon in Anne Arundel County

The Vineyards at Dodon in Anne Arundel County

 

Understandably, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission was thrilled to co-sponsor a workshop held at The Vineyards at Dodon last week with the Wallace Center for emerging food hubs appropriately titled “Emerging and Early Stage Food Hub Development Workshop.” Joining us were representatives from Chesapeake Harvest, Miltons Local, South Central PA, Community FARE, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Chesapeake Farm to Table and Garrett Growers Cooperative, Inc.

As expected, the Wallace Center provided a plethora of information about food hubs. However, the focus of the workshop was a facilitated discussion about what works and what doesn’t and participants had the opportunity to ask the tough questions.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 6.01.44 AM

Devona Sherwood, Program Officer, at the Wallace Center, listens to a response by Haile Johnston

Attendees were excited to be able to discuss food hub formation with Haile Johnston, co-founder of Common Market, a non-profit located in Philadelphia. It operates in the black. This year, they expect to sell $3 million in food. His hope is to enable new food hubs to succeed in half the time and with half the problems that new food hubs typically face.

Food hubs are often considered as more than just aggregators and distributors of food. The good ones create a food chain that adds value to participants at every stage. Haile began the discussion with a situation that occurred at the beginning of Common’s Market’s formation. They were at an auction to purchase apples to be distributed to those who could not afford fresh, healthy food. They were thrilled that the auction price was only $4.50 for a bushel of apples and they bought a number of bushels that day. Afterward, they reflected that they may be helping those in need of healthy food, but it was at the expense of farmers who would not earn a living with those prices. They resolved that their non-profit would operate in a fashion that would help producers as well as consumers of all income levels.

From the beginning, Common Market’s market strategy was to sell primarily to the institutional sector, because they didn’t see the competition at that level with the small operations. The largest segment of their sales is to schools (90), hospitals (20), elder cares facilities and cooperatives. They buy from 85 farmers with a very diverse product line, including turkeys, eggs, yogurt, chicken, apples and vegetables. They do not process yet, though they plan to eventually.

They began with one leased truck and now own a fleet of five refrigerated box trucks. All their food is farmer identified. Seventy-five percent of the food comes from within 80 miles of their non-profit and all of it comes from within 200 miles. Meat and eggs are key components. They operate on a 30% blended mark-up. Three times a week they send out an email to farmers with changing prices. They do some speculative buying but 95% of all perishable product is pre-sold.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 6.33.50 AMThey see advantages to technology but they also see the advantages to human interaction. Their buyers are able to gauge producers’ and distributors’ issues and concerns as they negotiate deals. Their truck drivers get to know both the farmers and the buyers so that they can monitor and build relationships.

A point that Haile came back to numerous times is that “Relationships are paramount across the food chain!”  That was a notion that resonated with attendees.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Farm to School, food hubs, New Ideas in Farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Beginning farmer scales up sustainably, buying and leasing equipment

oneacrefourBy 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.

Scaling Up

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.

Equipment

Farmers usually want to scale up but they need equipment to do it. Not everyone grew up oneacretwoon 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.walker@montgomerycountymd.gov.

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.

Posted in beginning farmers, Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, leasing farmland, New Farmers, scaling up in farming, small farms, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Charles County Schools to bring local produce into the cafeteria

By Cia Morey, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission

Last week, between thunderstorms here in Southern Maryland, I attended a meeting the
Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) hosted for local farmers. This was a pre-bid meeting to learn about an opportunity to sell local fresh produce to Charles County schools. CCPS has prepared an Invitation to Bid (ITB) for the 2015-2016 school year.

Maryland’s Farm to School Week this year is September 14-18, 2015. During this week, farmtoschool.2schools try and serve something local every day for a week. Charles County is taking steps to truly bring farms into the schools throughout the school year.

William Kreuter, Supervisor of Food Service understands that farmers in Southern Maryland cannot serve the entire school system for the whole school year. A majority of the school year takes place when most local farms are not producing as much.What’s unique about the bid is the school locations are bundled in a total of nine zones. This allows a bidder to only bid on a zone they feel they can fulfill when they have product available. Also, in the bid “local” is defined as 100 miles from La Plata, Maryland. That allows farms from all over the state of Maryland to participate in the bid if they want.

Kreuter said, “Through the bid process we look forward to developing an ongoing business vege4relationship with the local farming business community that will benefit local farmers and bring healthy food to our students.” Questions on the bid are due July 7, 2015 and final bids are due by July 23, 2013, 2 p.m. For bid information please visit the link.

We are thrilled to see a local school system create an innovative, flexible approach from which farmers of all sizes can participate. Farmers can win and so will students who will get the freshest food on their plates.

Posted in Farm to School, locally sourced food, Maryland Farm to School, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Pollinating the local economy to grow jobs and prosperity

Consumer demand is changing the U.S. food industry and local economies can take advantage of consumer demandpollinating for less processed fresh and local foods. A National Good Food Network webinar last week highlighted some ways to grow the local economy.

Rather than simply attracting another region’s businesses and retaining the ones you have, Michael Shuman, author of The Local Economy Solution, suggests that local governments and nonprofits should:

(1) Maximize local ownership. (2) Maximize local self-reliance. (3) Spread models of Triple Bottom Line  success.(4) Create an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

the PsHe noted that the first instinct of many pollinators (i.e. those seeking to grow local food businesses) is to turn to outside funders. A better approach is to work with local businesses and investors to build the local economy. Main Street Genome is an example of how pollinators can help to level the playing field for local business development by providing expert advice. Another is the Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C. (mentioned here previously) that helps to create food businesses by handling all the tough regulatory and infrastucture issues of food business development.

Local Money matters

A final point that Shuman makes is that a local bank is three times more likely to reinvest in the local community than a national bank. That is one way to ‘plug the leaks’ and boost the local economy.

Linda Best, founding member of FarmWorks in Nova Scotia, was the other speaker on the webinar. She talked about how the Canada province had been losing food production for 50 years, but was making a comeback with FarmWorks, whose mission is to “Promote, and provide, strategic and responsible community investment in food production and distribution in order to help increase access to a sustainable local food supply for all Nova Scotians.” In brief, FarmWorks links local investors with emerging companies.

We all know that in nature pollinators do magical work to turn flowers into food. Pollinating local economies can make the farm-to-table connections to grow jobs and prosperity.

 

Posted in Community Supported Agriculture, Farm to Table, Food incubators, local food movement, locally sourced food, New Ideas in Farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off