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Tomorrow’s Harvest: Beginning farmers share their stories

Tomorrow’s Harvest: Beginning farmers share their stories


SMADC has launched a new webpage called Tomorrow’s Harvest showcasing a series of stories about farmers in SMADC’s Mentor Match Program. Eight mentee farmers of the inaugural program agreed to share their stories in hopes that their experiences will be useful to others just beginning the journey.

Cathy Tipper, of Roberts Roost Farm and 2014 Mentee, rinses a cluster of bright-green sorrel just picked from the field. click the photo for the full story.
Cathy Tipper, of Roberts Roost Farm and 2014 Mentee, rinses a cluster of bright-green sorrel just picked from the field. Click the photo for Cathy’s story.

As the age of the average farmer continues to rise, programs like the Mentor Match are in place to keep farming alive in our region. High cost of land and necessary infrastructure to get started prevent many new farmers, and especially young farmers, from being profitable. During their time in the program, mentees work with an experienced mentor farmer who agreed to help grow the next generation of farmers in the region. The mentee visits the mentors farm and vice versa. They are encouraged to call the mentor with questions and occasionally the mentor contacts the mentee to see how things are going.

“I was trying to find more experienced people so I don’t make the same mistakes, especially as I’m scaling up…That’s one of the reasons to have someone in your region versus the Internet. The Internet doesn’t ask you how you’re doing. It doesn’t empathize,” Emma Jagoz of Moon Valley Farm says of her experience with the Mentor Match. “I wanted to be in the program forever.”

Generations ago, a parent or neighbor who lived on the adjacent farm could answer the questions of a new farmer. Today, the parent of a new farmer may not have farmed, the closest farm might be miles away, and a farmer with experience in a specific crop might be several counties away. A mentee can lean on someone with expert knowledge and wisdom, providing the new farmer with information that can prevent costly mistakes.

"The [mentor] made sure I had everything ready to go for market." --Jackson Webb, Mentee
“The [mentor] made sure I had everything ready to go for market.” –Jackson Webb, Mentee. Click on the picture to read Jackson’s full story.
“It has been such a joy to learn about and work with our farm mentees. They exhibit a passion for growing food and a quiet resolve to make a difference in their communities. Through the Mentor Match Program, mentees learn about tricks of the trade from a farmer experienced in their line of work, while mentors get to see farming through new eyes. The matches often form great relationships where both parties learn something,” said Greg Bowen, former Maryland FarmLINK Director at SMADC.

The beginning farmer stories are available online here.  The next round of stories will be added in the fall. If you are interested in the Mentor Match program, we have  rolling application process for mentees, you can fill out the form here. Contact us at or call 301-274-1922 x1 to become a mentor!


Saving family farms in Maryland – the right regulatory environment

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 wineryfirst 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.

Maryland farmers can benefit from two Maryland Department of Agriculture programs if nuisance claims arise. First, most Maryland counties have adopted a Right-to-Farm law. Second, the state has a Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service to help resolve disputes with neighbors.

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.

Typical regulations only. Check with your jurisdiction to determine what regulations are required
Typical regulations only. Check with your jurisdiction to determine what regulations are required

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

Source: The Atlantic "Why a Denver Suburb Has  Gone All-In for Farming"
Source: The Atlantic “Why a Denver Suburb Has Gone All-In for Farming”

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 – access to land

Saving family farms in Maryland – access to land

In my last post, I noted that we do not have enough young and beginning farmers to replace those who will retiring or otherwise changing control or ownership of their farms. In this post, I will cover why they have trouble getting access to land.

Excerpt from Voice of Agriculture post on March 11, 2014

It is ironic that  young farmers who grew up on a farm listed their top challenge is securing adequate access to land, according to an American Farm Bureau Federation survey in 2014. However, if your parents are raising a thousand acres of corn or running a 300-acre dairy, they need all of that land in order to make a living.

For those who did not grow up on a farm, getting started in Maryland is more daunting. Maryland’s farmland values are roughly three times the national average, and much higher around the lucrative urban centers. It simply does not make financial sense to buy the property to farm unless one has other income sources and can consider the land as an investment to resell.

Leasing is not necessarily the go-to solution either. Farm families who no longer can farm their properties tend to reach out to other farmers that they know to lease their land. There is comfort in knowing another farmer’s history and trustworthiness and commodity farmers impose the least conditions on use of the land. They do not require fencing or irrigation to water their corn, soybeans or wheat. Since they do not need to make major investments in the land, they will accept shorter lease terms. However, most young farmers and beginning farmers (who did not grow up on a farm) cannot afford the huge tractors, combines and tractor trailers needed to produce commodity crops.

small farm posted on Maryland FarmLINK
Small farm posted on Maryland FarmLINK

Despite all of these challenges, some young farmers and beginning farmers are finding properties to farm. The reason is what I call the “affection factor.” That is, the young and beginning farmers’ affection for farming that overcomes obstacles and/or the farmland owners’ affection for these young or beginning farmers, such that make accommodations for them despite the reasons stated above. In Maryland, 603 farmers under 35 were farming as of the 2012 census, which is great, but only a fraction of the number needed to manage the Maryland farms as the older generations retire.

Some of the beginning farmers are farming properties that are not suited to large-scale agriculture, such as a three-acre lot with a field and a house, but may be perfect for a young or beginning farmer wanting to try market vegetable farming. Others have found generous farmers who have a few acres to spare. At Maryland FarmLINK, we are working with land owners and realtors throughout the state to identify those properties and post them on the Property Exchange, a free service. We provide free online resources about  zoning, land preservation easements, leasing documents, etc.  But as a society, we need to do more. We need to improve communication between young and beginning farmers and farm owners who have retired or who bought a farm but do not farm it. If you have suggestions, please email me at or 301-274-1922 ext. 1.

Meanwhile, if they find land to purchase or lease, will young and beginning farmers have the needed infrastructure to succeed? We will cover that in the next post.




Presentations on “scaling up” highlighted the Annual Mentor Match Meeting

Presentations on “scaling up” highlighted the Annual Mentor Match Meeting

We are delighted to be part of the Maryland Collaborative for Beginning Farmer Success that received a grant from the USDA’s Beginning FarScreen Shot 2014-12-03 at 9.33.05 AMmer and Rancher Development Program. SMADC supports the effort with enhanced resources on the Maryland FarmLINK website and managing the Mentor Match Program for beginning farmers.

On November 20th, we held the first annual meeting to discuss accomplishments and how we can improve the program. However, prior to the meeting, I had asked mentors and mentees what they might want to learn more about. Learning more about “scaling up” was the the most requested item, so two of our partners in the Collaborative, Shannon Dill and Paul Goeringer, stepped up to provide great information on the use of social media for marketing, dealing with farm labor issues and expanded crop insurance for vegetable and fruit operations under the new Farm Bill.luke2

However, the most attention was centered around Luke Howard’s presentation “Experiences in Scaling Up: Successes and Failures.” Luke and Alison Howard own and operate Homestead Farms, Inc. located in Millington, MD. Luke said that their initial goals for the 77 acre farm when they purchased it in 2002 were to “live the farm life, grow some vegetables and have a few animals for fun.” My sense is that neither would be satisfied with that for long. They seem to love a challenge. Both were familiar with farming, but neither had operated an organic vegetable farm.

Photo by Luke Howard

Luke balanced humor and honesty in his talk in a way that kept attendees riveted as he described both successes and failures as their operation grew. In a short 11-year span, they scaled up from a 10-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation with some sales at a farmers market and a restaurant, to a 250 member CSA with 60 acres of vegetables and 400 acres of grains (on rented land) and a number of wholesale contracts to popular retail stores and restaurants.

Luke and Alison have focused on diversifying as they scaled up and they are careful, prudent business planners. Luke’s Take Home Message:

  1. Talk to buyers and get an understanding of the market
  2. Be fiscally conservative. Don’t risk it all.
  3. Make sure you have the experience to grow and package.
  4. Make sure labor is in place.
  5. Don’t be in a rush. Take it in steps.
  6. Write out your plan and review with other experts.

As we wrapped up a successful first year in the Mentor Match Program, attendees had lots of good suggestions to ponder. For more information on the Collaborative’s beginning farmer program led by University of Maryland Extension, and our other partners University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Future Harvest CASA,  go to the Beginning Farmer Success website. To apply to be a part of our Mentor Match Program, click here.


Realtor’s class in Maryland’s biggest farm county was a success!

Realtor’s class in Maryland’s biggest farm county was a success!

Frederick County, Maryland is blessed with a pleasant climate and productive farmland soils.

Historic barn near Urbana
Historic barn near Urbana

Frederick had 181,512 acres of farmland in 2012, according to USDA Ag census figures, the most farmland  of any county in the state. The market value of agricultural products was $150 million. However the county lost 20,500 acres of farmland between 2007 and 2012, the greatest loss of farmland in the state.

Paul Goeringer, legal specialist at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Maryland, and I held a class at the Frederick County Association of Realtors to equip 26 realtors with the tools and information necessary to help their clients identify, analyze and purchase or lease farmland.

Paul Goeringer speaking to the class
Paul Goeringer speaking to the class

The future of agriculture depends on the next generation of farmers being able to get access to of farmland. Being so close to Washington D.C., Frederick could help feed the huge metropolitan area or it could become a victim of suburban sprawl.  I was happy to see so many Frederick County realtors interested in selling and leasing farmland and wanting to know about the tools and resources available to help farmers in the land selection process.

Their names names and contact information will be added to the List of Realtor Graduates on Maryland FarmLINK’s Realtor Resources pages. Maryland FarmLINK is a free resource and there is no charge to post a property for sale or lease.


Maryland FarmLINK is gaining ground!

Maryland FarmLINK is gaining ground!

IMG_0007_2Maryland FarmLINK is gaining traction as a web tool to help farmers gain access to land, either by purchase or lease, thanks to land owners, realtors and farm support groups interested in continuing agriculture and forestry in Maryland. Our website picked up 595 new members in FY ’14, an increase of 82%. The number of monthly visits to the site increased by 65% to 5,087 by the end of FY ’14, with the majority seeking farmland.

We cannot tell you how many transactions occurred because communications between land owner and seeker are confidential. However, I am aware of a number of successes and they are attracting more interest.

Helping Beginning Farmers 

Our hope is to  connect all types of farms being offered for sale or lease with farmers who wish to farm them. That includes large-scale farm operators, hobby farmers and beginning farmers looking for their first farm to lease or own. However, I have to admit being most excited when we can help a beginning farmer get started.

Earlier this week, the National Geographic posted an article, American Farmers are Growing Old, With Spiraling Costs Keeping Out Young. Their story happens to occur in the cherry region of Northport Michigan where I vacationed this summer and posted a blog. The NG article highlights the challenges of beginning farmers and a couple who appear to be making it despite the spiraling costs. As with Michigan farmland, Maryland averages approximately $7,000 per acre, more than most beginning farmers can afford.

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 6.48.00 AMOn the Maryland FarmLINK website, we ask those seeking farmland to complete a survey. Of those surveyed,  33 of the 76 are 34 and under in age and 64% have been farming 10 years or less. Most are hoping to have a diversified operation, including vegetables and livestock.

While farmers surveyed would like to own their land, roughly 40% of those surveyed would consider a lease and another 25% would actually prefer a lease.

That is why I am so glad to see a significant increase in properties being leased that are posted on our Maryland FarmLINK site this year. By far the largest offering of properties for lease occurred  when a real estate group posted 26 farms on the Eastern Shore totaling 3,500 acres this month. An agent at the firm reported that they have been showing properties to beginning farmers. Bids are due October 15th.

A website is just a website; a vehicle for opportunity. It is farmers, land owners and agents

Beginning farmers on the Sassafras Creek Farm Tour last month
Beginning farmers on the Sassafras Creek Farm Tour last month

who really care about farming who make the difference. Quoting Wendell Berry, “it all turns on affection.” Affection for the soil, for animals, for growing things, for real, honest labor—these are what is bringing young adults and young retirees back into agriculture. And it is affection for people, and passing on the opportunity for farming, that propels land owners, extension folk, Farmlink people, realtors and others to make the improbable connections so that the next generation of farmers is ready. In Maryland, we are steadily gaining ground!

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