All are fed at the farm

f4h.blessing.scene.Written by Priscilla Wentworth and Greg Bowen

Serenity Farm in Charles County should no longer exist. Mid-sized farms in the U.S. have been disappearing at a dramatic rate, as ag operations have continued to scale up to compete in the global markets. In fact, this farm has struggled as farm profits continued to decline in the last few decades.

Ironically, the farm is on the rebound now due to a nonprofit called Farming 4 Hunger,

F4H Founder with former and current participants in DOC's work release program

F4H Founder, Bernie Fowler (behind mic), with former and current participants in DOC’s pre-release program

which had its second Annual Blessing of the Farm event on Saturday. In the last three years, the farm has raised over 3 million pounds of produce that were donated to those in need. The farmers are paid to raise the food and MD Department of Correction (DOC) pre-release participants and hundreds of volunteers harvest it.

Most of the produce raised stays right in Southern Maryland – feeding people in need. But the slogan “All are fed at the farm” goes beyond food. Farming 4 Hunger is now connecting with 27 other farmers. Synergy and profitability for farmers are building the local economy. And lives are changing too.

Farming 4 Hunger’s Founder Bernie Fowler is proud of his relationship with the men from DOC who are at the end of serving their time and want to give back for what they’ve taken from society. Graduates of the program often find jobs in the community and many return to volunteer and share their stories.

f4h.blessing.speechWhen 140 people of different religions and  cultures come out to Farming 4 Hunger to bless the fields for the upcoming growing season to feed people in need fresh vegetables- that is community. Growing food is important but growing food together (and ultimately growing together) is what makes it all worthwhile.

Family farms of all sizes are benefiting from the local food movement. People are learning that food from farms in their region is not only is fresher and tastier, it creates jobs, builds community and it can even change lives. Serenity Farm, with the help of Farming 4 Hunger, is a community farm. As the nonprofit’s website says, “We welcome you to come back time and time again to serve, educate, share, fellowship, rejoice, laugh and learn.”

 

 

 

 

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Millennials try their hand at farming with the help of a mentor and a farm owner

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.02.16 AMWhat a joy to visit with Ross Margulies, Leah Putkammer, and Rebecca Cecere Seward on a Mentor Match farm visit last week. Ross and Leah’s farm, Working over Thyme, is located on rolling hills near the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County. Rebecca’s  farm, Prickly Pear Produce, is a 40-minute drive away, in Charles County.

Ross and Leah are college educated professionals working in Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.01.02 AMWashington, D.C. who found that growing food is their passion. Previously, they had taken classes, grown their own gardens, worked in community gardens and sold seedlings. They decided to begin farming through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which consists of a community of individuals who pledge to financially support a farm operation and share the risks and benefits of food production. They applied for a mentor to help them learn how to turn the joy of growing vegetables into a business.

Rebecca graduated with a liberal arts degree from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, not the Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 9.00.01 AMusual form of training for a farmer. However, while at the college, she decided to earn some cash working at the Even’ Star Organic Farm near the campus, which runs one of the largest CSAs in the state. She rose to a “forewoman” position at the farm and found that farming was a perfect trade for her to be able to work outdoors and to promote environmental sustainability and community. Over the last 10+ years, she has worked on a number of farms. Prior to starting her own farm last year, she managed  a CSA and ran an apprenticeship program at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek Maryland. She has agreed to serve as a mentor for Ross and Leah.

However, this mentorship meeting would not have happened without the help of Yates Clagett. Yates is not a newcomer to agriculture. His family has owned and operated a farm in Prince George’s County for decades and Yates is a District Ag Engineer for the Prince George’s County Soil Conservation District. Like many farms in the state, the family farm has a tenant house. When the tenant house became available, Yates reached out to see if a young farmer might be interested. With the help of Maryland FarmLINK, Ross and Leah met with Yates who offered to lease the tenant house and a small piece of land to help them get started in farming.

Maryland needs young farmers. Ross and Leah did not grow up on a vegetable farm, but farming has become their passion. Becky is willing to share her knowledge and experiences through the Mentor Match Program, supported by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program. And farm owners like the Clagett family give young farmers a chance to succeed!

 

 

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When the consumer wins and the farmer wins!

A 2014 National Grocery Association consumer survey pretty much tells it all. “More locally grown foods” is the second most desired improvement  among surveyed grocery shoppers. It was second to “Price/cost savings.” That sounds like we want our food to be grown locally, but it must be cheap.

Price Rules?

AandPIn his book, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, historian Marc Levinson tells the story of an epic struggle between small business and big business. A&P was the first large grocery chain in the U.S. Before the A&P stores, most food was local. Some was purchased at outdoor markets, like Lexington Market in Baltimore City, that supplied fruits and vegetables from the region. Mom and Pop stores supplied more shelf-stable foods such as canned and dried goods sourced from small and mid-sized industries. Butcher shops supplied meats.

According to Levinson, A&P developed a new business model for grocery stores. It manufactured its own store brands, ran its own warehousing and transportation systems and priced its products well below competitors. In the 1940s the federal government sued the company under antitrust laws, fearing that it would become a monopoly. Ultimately, the federal government won the case and the company owners were fined.

However, consumers liked the lower prices and eventually the sentiment moved toward acceptance of the grocery chain model. Tens of thousands of local groceries stores closed down in the next few decades, but they were not the only losers. As chains grew larger, they began to aggregate food from greater distances, seeking the lowest prices for their consumers. California, with its temperate climate and irrigation systems became the fruit and vegetable baskets of the nation. Farmers everywhere had to scale up or get out. The farmers who survived became less diversified and the small food operations that processed and supplied local cheese, milk, meats, and canned goods disappeared.

Global Competition

By the 1970s, U.S. agriculture set its sites on global markets and in 1992, the U.S. entered in a North American Fair Trade Agreement. It may come as no surprise that labor is the greatest cost associated with the production of fruits and vegetables. Production moved to where labor costs were the cheapest. According to USDA data, since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Mexican imports of vegetables have risen 306%.

In January 2014, Renee’ Johnson, Specialist in Agricultural Policy for the Congressional Research Service, issued a report entitled “The U.S. Trade Situation for Fruit and Vegetable Products.” She noted that over the last decade (e.g. after the phase out of tariffs) there has been a growing U.S. trade deficit in fresh and processed fruits and vegetables such that there is a $11.2 billion gap between imports and exports. She added that the U.S. has gone from being a net exporter to net importer of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables. Between 1990 and 2010, the import share of fresh fruit has grown from 34.9% to 48.8% and the import share of fresh vegetables has grown from 10.3% to 24.5%.

Life is not rosy on the other side of the border either. Small farms in Mexico are being

Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times

replaced by multinational corporations which operate under limited labor standards. In December, National Public Radio reported on a story entitled Mexican Megafarms Supplying U.S. Market Are Rife With Labor Abuses. The Los Angeles Times’ Richard Marosi had completed an 18-month investigation into labor abuses at megafarms in Mexico that produce tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables for U.S. markets. Marosi called the workers at these labor camps the “invisible people”, making $8 to $12 a day in appalling labor conditions. In one case, workers were held captive and forced to work. Those goods are winding up on grocery shelves at many of the largest chain grocery stores, according to the report.

Back to the Future?

How can Maryland  farmers compete? A 2013  survey by A. T. Kearney reported that 66% market.4.9are choosing to buy local food because it helps local economies. Also, they trust the local farmers and 70% are willing to pay more for local food. Once again, consumers are choosing to buy local produce, meats, dairy products, beer, and wine. They notice the quality, taste and variety.

The internet is a great asset for farmers. Social media has allowed farmers to tell their stories and to market their products. Customers like to visit farms and discuss growing practices at farmers markets.

Local and state food processing regulations are being scaled to fit small operations (though more can be done here). Food aggregation systems (e.g. food hubs and co-ops) are being established to help farms reach schools, colleges, hospitals and other food service facilities.

Finally, USDA reported earlier this year that locally-sourced food is price competitive with national chains. Perhaps we are reaching a place where the customer wins and the farmer wins!

 

 

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Where is a Farmers’ Market that accepts WIC and Senior checks? There’s an App for That!

By Cia Morey, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission

On St. Patrick’s Day last month, I attended Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Annual market.meetingMaryland Farmers’ Market Conference. This all-day conference had numerous speakers and several presentations that covered everything from weighing scale certification, various resources for farmers and markets, information on permits for food safety, marketing presentations and at the end of the day vendor training and certification for accepting WIC at farmers’ market.

The Conference began with a warm welcome from MDA’s new Secretary Joseph Bartendfelder. It was nice hearing about his farm and his days at farmers’ markets in Maryland. I enjoy this annual meeting as it’s a time to visit with colleagues and put a face to a name I may work with throughout the year. It allows us to gear-up for the market season and the information presented is informative and helpful.

marketappOne of the most exciting announcements is MDA’s new mobile site and app called the Farmers Market Finder. The USDA Supplemental Nutrition Grant Program provides grants that allows state agencies to provide checks to low-income participants. The programs are the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) (FMNP) and Seniors (SFMNP). Both checks can be used at farmers’ markets with authorized FMNP farmers. In 2014, Maryland farmers received more than $500,000 through the two programs. The checks are handed to participants at WIC clinics and through the county’s Aging Department. The top reasons for not using the checks at farmers’ markets are:

  • not knowing where to find a farmers’ market,
  • not knowing how to prepare or cook the produce and
  • not remembering to use the checks before expiration.

The solution is a mobile phone app that lists all the Maryland farmers market that have FMNP and SFMNP participants. The app will remind the user how to use their checks at the market, link to videos and phots of featured FMNP farmers, list eligible and ineligible foods for the two programs, recipes, links to agency sites and an option to “opt in” to receive text messages every month to remind them to use their FMNP checks. participants will be able to sign-up for the service when they receive their checks.

Maryland is the first state to pilot this program and it will begin this market season.  This program is a win for low-income folks to have access to local healthy produce and to our market farmers for potential customer-growth.

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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

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 2.19.43 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 2.17.07 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 2.18.25 PM

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!

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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

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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.

 

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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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