Maryland FarmLINK posted a blog last year about an initial meet-up to identify interests from young farmers in the region. The meeting was to discuss forming a state-wide chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting practices and policies that will sustain young farmers now and in the future. There was much interest and enthusiasm, so, following the event, the Maryland Young Farmers Coalition (MD-YFC) was born.
The Maryland Chapter is a networking and support group made up of young and beginning farmers in the region. To date, they have engaged with over 100 of their peer farmers from across the state. Founded to provide structure
for social engagement, and knowledge sharing between members, the group is focused on online and offline collaboration. They host events, set up networking sessions at local conferences and meetings, and send updates via newsletters and social media about young farmer happenings. The first mixer was hosted last fall in Mt. Airy at Milkhouse brewery and StillPoint farm. The next mixer will be May 1st at Monnett farms followed by a farmer social at Running Hare winery next door.
Additionally, the Coalition raises awareness about young farmers through their weekly Featured Maryland Young Farmer posts using the hashtag #mdyoungfarmer.
A new initiative the Coalition plans to engage in this year are Crop Mobs! Crops mobs are fun, hands-on, educational experiences that help a grower complete larger projects. Farmers and community members come together on a specific day to tackle a specific labor-intensive project, whether it be reclaiming a field from weeds, harvesting sweet potatoes, or tying up garlic. In part, it’s about community and camaraderie. Basically, a pay it forward event to help fellow farmers.
These workshops provide an opportunity to join together and support fellow growers while learning valuable skills from experienced farmers.
The Chapter is still formalizing their structure and membership, as it continues to evolve. They may undertake policy and advocacy work, focusing on initiatives that make it difficult for young farmers to succeed. Already members have been a voice for federal legislation and advocacy by representing the National Young Farmers Coalition campaigns, such as those focused on student loan debt, access to land, and food safety/FSMA rules. Learn more about this new group here.
This week sure is the week of farm conferences and events! We will report on some of them in the coming weeks, but this week we’ve revived a series of posts on “Saving family farms in Maryland”. The series addresses many of the challenges and opportunities we face in farming in Maryland, and will likely continue to face. Perhaps with a look back at them we can charge ourselves with a few new tasks as we make our way into the new year.
Saving family farms in Maryland – access to land This post includes information about FarmLINK’s Property Exchange and other free resources like zoning maps and land preservation easements, as well as improving communication between young and beginning farmers and retired farm owners.
Saving family farms in Maryland – infrastructure solutions Beginning farmers often have difficulty finding land that also has the infrastructure amenities they need. In this post common infrastructure needs are covered like water, fencing, housing (tiny house information included), and lease agreements.
As we move into fall, it marks a good time to look back and reflect, as Maryland FarmLINK just finished the year-end report. FarmLINK helps aspiring farmers locate farmland and find mentors and partners. FarmLINK provides a forum for all farmers to exchange and ask questions, and provides information such as where to find equipment for rent, workshops, land, and general farming news. The popularity of the website continues to grow with visits to the site increasing 134%, to 124,000 in FY’15 and we are thrilled to see so many farmers engaging. We believe that many farmers and local food producers are using FarmLINK as their main resource for updates and information in Maryland.
This is important because within the next 20 years, 75% of the Maryland’s farmland will change hands. The average age of a principal farmer in Maryland is 59 and the average age of the former tobacco farmers is well into the 70s. Add to that, less than 5% of Maryland farmers are under 35 years of age. If we want to continue to build upon local food systems, we must help to grow the growers.
Growing new farmers
Access to land remains a top concern, as land values in Maryland are nearly three times the national average. Also, most farmland offered for sale is sold through a realtor, but realtors are not always familiar with the unique characteristics of selling farmland, and may not be not aware that FarmLINK exists. Many beginning farmers consider leasing farmland to be the most feasible way to start. This past year, we were happy to see several new farmers make leasing arrangements through FarmLINK. Our hope is to connect all types of farms: large-scale farm operators, hobby farmers and beginning farmers looking for their first farm to lease or own.
Furthermore, new farmers who did not grow up on a farm lack access to experienced farmers who can act as mentors. FarmLINK’s Mentor Match program pairs experienced farmers (mentors) with new or transitioning farm owners/operators (mentees) for one-on-one training, advice and interaction. To date, over 46 applications have been received and 17 matches have been formalized.
A recent example, is a couple who signed up for FarmLINK for the property exchange and mentor program. They stated their specifications and were then linked up with Yates Clagett, a Prince George’s County cattle grazier, who had a vacant tenant house and a few small fields that had been laying fallow since the days of growing tobacco.
The mentor program will continue for the southern Maryland region in 2016, you can sign up here. In efforts to foster continual learning, FarmLINK is excited to announce a developing series of mentee profiles, which will be showcased online in October.
Outreach to all Maryland farmers
FarmLINK maintains a current calendar of upcoming seminars, workshops and other educational opportunities around the region which averages 30-50 listings at any time. in 2015 staff expanded on the resource section which provides tutorials on soil analysis, planning and zoning information, farm equipment for rent, a guide to acidified foods, a realtor guide (and list of realtors familiar with selling farmland), and others.
The blog continues to receive 3,000 to 9,000 views per month. The Facebook page is growing as a news source and a place for people to communicate real time (viewers increased 60% in 2015). The Twitter feed posts the top tweets per week on current farming stories and events around the state and country (increased by over 100 followers this year). The Weekly Roundup is sent by email on Friday morning and highlights the best of the week on FarmLINK (over 1500 subscribers, you can sign up here).
Maryland FarmLINK is gaining traction as a web tool and resource to help farmers get access to land or expand their operation. As we’ve mentioned before, a website is just a tool—but it can be an important vehicle that leads to one of the largest investments a farmer makes—his/her land and farm operation. The support of many has been critical to building the capacity of farmers in the region and strengthening networks to improve success. There is still much work to be done, but the future of farming has a chance in this region— we must keep it alive!
Beginning farmer scales up sustainably, buying and leasing equipment
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.email@example.com.
Maryland farmers are making their own inspiring stories about producing food for the region on leased land. For many reasons, the odds have been stacked against those who lease farmland, yet they seem to persevere. Hands down, the greatest challenge for beginning farmers (those raised on a farm and those who were not) is access to land.
There is nothing new about leased farmland in Maryland or Virginia. In fact, roughly 64% of all Maryland farmland is leased. What is new is that these are not grain farmers. These are vegetable and livestock farmers who have different leasing needs and challenges than grain farmers. They need access to water for their crops and/or livestock. They need fencing to keep their critters in or other critters out. They need housing on the land or nearby to watch over their crops or flocks. They need a viable market nearby.
These farmers are like the farmers of the first half of the 20th century who sold directly to consumers. By the end of the 20th century, farmers had dropped out of direct sales as major food chains took control of the U.S. food system. Some farmers scaled up to wholesale operations and others dropped out of farming all together.
Are today’s farmers who sell direct to consumers likely to endure the same fate? Not necessarily.
What has changed is that consumers want to know their farmers and how they grow their food. The internet is giving farmers the ability to communicate to consumers in a way that levels the marketing field somewhat. And we know more about the soil and how to tease more production from the land with lower input costs, through cover crops, compost, mulch etc.
Leasing land is a practical option for both land owner and farmer. The land owners receive agriculture use assessment for their land, which reduces their tax burden. The farmers avoid the capital costs and/or mortgage burden of buying land and that allows them to invest more into their farm.
Of course the devil is in the details as to whether the owner and the farmer can develop a productive, compatible relationship. On the evening of May 11th, the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Agriculture Law Education Initiative is hosting a farmland leasing webinar. I will be addressing issues such as finding land to lease and determining if the soils, zoning, and other restrictions will permit a farmer to operate as he/she wishes. Paul Georinger will cover recommended lease documents, average lease rates, and Maryland case law concerning leases. Participants will be able to post questions.
You can also see the first leasing webinar held May 4th, by clicking on Lease Agreements and scrolling down to webinars. The May 11th webinar will be posted at the same location a few days after the event.
Leasing farmland can be a great way for farmers to get started. These webinars provide information to help make that happen.
Millennials try their hand at farming with the help of a mentor and a farm owner
What 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 Washington, 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 usual 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!
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.
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
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!
Nearly 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.
At 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.
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.
Saving family farms in Maryland – the right regulatory environment
This blog is one of a series on saving family farms in Maryland. In my last post, I covered some of the typical infrastructure needs of beginning farmers. In this post, I discuss possible regulatory challenges for new agricultural entrepreneurs.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when Maryland’s health and zoning regulations were first adopted, direct sales of farm products, value-added farm products and agri-tourism uses (such as farm weddings, corn mazes, and wine tastings) were not a significant part of the agricultural landscape and regulations were not written to allow them. The local food movement has created many new opportunities for farmers, but some counties have not updated their regulations to specifically allow the new uses.
Before you sign on the dotted line for leasing or purchasing a farm, I recommend that you visit our Zoning Tutorial, which describes the reasons for regulations, how they relate to adopted plans, and who to contact with questions and for clarifications. There are also links to county zoning regulations that are posted on the web.
To dispel any hope of simplicity, no county zoning regulations are the same. Each is patterned to address plan goals, citizen concerns, etc. The names of zoning districts differ, the definitions differ, and the review processes differ. In addition to verifying that their farm uses are allowed by zoning, farmers should ask their attorney if there are any preservation or conservation easements that would restrict their farming activities.
Even if they pass these hurdles, farmers can face tough, expensive legal challenges if they propose a farm project that is perceived by neighbors to have an adverse impact on the use of their properties. A case in point is the Bellevale Farms Inc., an organic dairy farm on 199 acres in the Long Green Valley area of Baltimore County. The Long Green Valley Association had sued when the dairy sought and received approval to construct a creamery.
When a farmer is ready to undertake a new project, it pays to visit the local permit offices. I put together a simple table of the types of permits that may be needed and the agencies that may be involved.
Fortunately, there are people to help. At the Beginning Farmer Success website, they have collected contact information by county. You may also want to see if there is an Agricultural Marketing Professional in your county to help guide you through the permitting process.
Some counties have made great progress in clarifying zoning regulations that apply to
farm enterprises. Earlier this year, I wrote about Montgomery County’s new zoning ordinance which allows agricultural uses in practically every part of the county, scaled to the development in each particular zone. I think that Calvert County does a good job of allowing a wide variety of agricultural uses in its agriculture districts (full disclosure, I helped to write it). Farm entrepreneurs can find farm use definitions, the zones where the use is allowed and the conditions that will be imposed.
More can be done if we are to save family farms in Maryland. I just read an article from The Atlantic CITYLAB about how a Denver suburb actively encourages urban farming and has streamlined its regulations. As the article states, they are experiencing an “agricultural renaissance.”
Lets hope that we are on the cusp of the same! Next week, gaining level access to markets.
Saving family farms in Maryland – Infrastructure solutions
This blog is one of a series on saving family farms in Maryland. In my last post, I noted that young and beginning farmers often have difficulty finding land that also has the infrastructure amenities they need. In this post I cover some of the common infrastructure needs.
Access to water
Most commodity crops are not irrigated. However, just about every other crop is irrigated and livestock operations require water too. A good production well for irrigation can easily cost up to $20,000 and these wells require a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Some small-scale vegetable, fruit and livestock farmers use their house well for agricultural purposes, especially if they are using drip irrigation or just watering a few animals. However, many house wells are not suited for even that level of water use.
There are other solutions. For example, if the farm happens to have a pond, it might be a source of irrigation water, but be sure to discuss this with the farm owner, if you are leasing, and include it in your lease agreement. There are other options but they are not well-tested (pardon the pun!) for production. For example, most farmers are not aware that “dug” wells and “driven” wells are still permitted in Maryland. In the coastal plain, it is often possible to find a high water table and both options are much cheaper than “artesian wells. The first well for my house was a “dug” well, which consists of a stack of 3 – 4 ft. diameter concrete well curbs usually hand dug into the ground until you reach water. It took me less than a day to dig mine and then my plumber hooked up the pump. Dug wells are no longer permitted for household use but they are allowed for irrigation purposes.
The old adage is “Good fences make good neighbors.” When it comes to livestock operations and fruit and vegetable production in Maryland, the adage should be amended to say “good fences make successful farms.” Of course, good fences keep livestock on the farm and protected from foxes, coyotes and such. However, vegetable and fruit producers need good fences to keep a gentle four-legged animal out. Deer populations across the state are at such a level of overpopulation that they will even eat landscaping materials next to a house in urban/suburban areas. In most parts of the state, it may be futile to grow certain vegetables and fruits without a fence. Before putting in that first crop, be sure to either get assurances from neighbors that there is no deer problem, or be sure to put fencing in your farm budget and include it in your lease agreement, if leasing.
Portable electric fences have become a popular solution for “pasture-rotation” livestock producers, including cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry. These portable fences can be quickly set up. However, some of your pasture may need to be more permanent and secure, especially if you leave the farm often. Extension has a nice webpage about fencing options and costs.
As to farm equipment, many experts recommend caution. Don’t buy more than you are sure that you can afford or more than you really need. And “used” may be the best way to get started. To learn more, check out Extension’s Beginning Farmer Success page on equipment.
Good Road Access
This will mean different things to different farmers. For grain farmers, wholesale producers and large livestock producers, it means a road that will support heavy trucks and is virtually “weather proof.” For small-scale fruit and vegetable producers and agri-tourism ventures, it may mean access to a road with substantial traffic volumes for customers/visitors and/or a suitable location for a roadside stand.
Be sure that you have legal access to the road if you lease the property and be sure that you can get permission from the county or state if you plan to have a roadside stand and/or plan to invite customers or visitors to the site.
Nearly all non-commodity farmers need a place to live on or near the land that they are farming, to provide security and the near constant maintenance of the land and its products. If the farm operator is not the owner, then it is great if there is a tenant house available for the beginning farmer.
If not, farm mobile homes are an option in some counties. However, you will need permits and, once they are purchased, they may be difficult to sell later. Currently, state and local regulations may make it difficult to provide any secondary residential accommodations on farms for beginning farm operators. Excise taxes and new septic systems can add tens of thousands dollars to the cost of housing.
An interesting option that the state should consider would be allow mini-homes on farms as a temporary use as long as a farmer is leasing a farm. The Bridge Foundation has some interesting examples, including the one posted to the left. That is an idea that I hope to pursue with county and state officials in the next year.
A Good Lease Helps to Maintain Relationships
My friend Paul Goeringer always says that Marilu Henner is one of only a few people in the world who remembers every conversation she ever had. She has what is called a “highly superior autobiographical memory.” Everyone else forgets. If you are not one of the few, put your agreements in writing. Paul has authored a sample lease agreement that serves as a great guide for Maryland farmers.
Next week, we will talk about the right regulatory environment needed to save family farms in Maryland.