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Interview: Farmer, Susie Hance-Wells, Part 1

Interview: Farmer, Susie Hance-Wells, Part 1

As part of the weekly blog post series, Maryland FarmLINK will begin to feature an interview with a farmer or local food advocate occasionally.

The first interview is with Susie Hance-Wells of Taney Place farm in Calvert County. The farm recently started a new retail venture called Battle Creek Beef.

Maryland FarmLINK: Will you tell us about yourself?

Susie: The farm has been in the family since 1800. I was born and raised here on the farm. I am the 8th generation and my son just had a little boy who is the 10th generation on this farm. We are vested in this land and want to make it as sustainable as possible so that it can support each generation with fulltime farmers. I always wanted to be outside and farm with my dad since being a young girl. Susie Hance-WellsWhen it was time for me to go to school I decided to go to University of Delaware and study agriculture. It was 1973, and I was the only girl in a lot of my classes. My advisor told me women could not be farmers and I had to pick a career that woman could do. So I started in agriculture journalism, which was very interesting, but I quickly realized that it was not for me. I switched over to focus on livestock management and agriculture education.

I came home to the farm in 1977. My dad was the Maryland secretary of agriculture at the time so he wasn’t always available to be on the farm and the farm manager here was leaving. My dad asked if I could stay through the summer to manage the farm until he could find somebody else. I said that was fine and turned down the job offers that I had. One month led to the next, I started getting my own cattle, my own tobacco crop. I started vesting myself into the farm and then I didn’t want to leave. It was not a conscious decision at that time that I was going to stay home and be a farmer. It just happened.

Maryland FarmLINK: Will you tell us about your new venture, Battle Creek Beef, and what you grow and produce on the farm?

Susie: We own 320 acres here and we lease another 400 acres. The farm has traditionally been a tobacco and livestock farm, but the main source of income was always tobacco. We transitioned from tobacco before the buyout, and came up with new ways to keep the farm sustained. I have done cattle, sheep, feeder hogs, all of which were sold to specialty markets or individual consumers. We have also boarded horses over the years, up to 35 at a time, and built an indoor arena. We boarded horses for 18 years, which gave us that cash flow to do some innovative things on the farm, like upgrade our equipment.BCB16

Recently, my son came home to farm and we made the decision to transition away from horses. We looked at a range of different options, but the one we were most set up for was cattle. We already had our fields fenced, automatic waters, feeders, the silo and our cattle barns were established. We decided that cattle seemed to have the least amount of investment to start the new enterprise, Battle Creek Beef. We sell beef by the cut now and at a farmers market. We sold our first cuts this past July. We also purchase from a farm we have a close relationship with in Southwest Virginia. He supplies what we cannot yet produce. We are up to 20 cows here on the farm and we hope to get up to about 35 cows. Anything over that we need, we plan to buy through our friend who will sell us his weened calves. We do this because it is important for us to have the same genetics, but we realize that it will take us anywhere from five to ten years to get to that scale on our own. Lastly, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Soy beans, wheat, hay and corn are currently raised here on the farm. We also breed Labrador retrievers.

Maryland FarmLINK: Do you have any tips or advice for new and beginning farmers?

I used to be a young and beginning farmer [laughs]. Dad and I farmed together for a while but then he stepped back. He was good about letting me try new things. When I came home, I thought I knew it all. I had been to school for 4 years, I was going to tell him how to farm! And I quickly realized that what was in the books has to be mixed with practical experience. I realized that by listening to the older farmers, and learning from their experiences, that is ultimately where you really gain as a farmer.

I think that would be the advice to new and beginning farmers. Do your research, but use the knowledge that the seasoned farmers have. Seek advice from them, it can save you a lot of heartache and money. The new ideas are great, and combined, the two can make a very progressive farm. I have made a lot of mistakes, and farmers can learn from those. They can also learn from the successes that I have made from making those mistakes. BCB2It is very important to be educated and keep up with the newest innovations, but then to also go and talk to people. If you are going into chickens, go talk to those chicken farmers and see what they have done. More than likely, if they are still in business, they are doing something right.

You also ask me about advice to young farmers. If you have an idea, do not give up! Anything is possible if you are willing to put the hard work in. A lot of times the older generation will say, and my father was no different, “that’ll never work” or “you don’t want to get into that”. If you really believe that it could work, and you can do a business plan and show that you can make this happen, you can make that dream come true.

This post is part of a two-part interview. Coming next week, Susie’s perspective on creating a better food system and the role of agriculture in local communities.

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

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

Saving family farms in Maryland – level access to markets

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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