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Saving Family Farms in Maryland

Saving Family Farms in Maryland

photo5 (2)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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Saving family farms in Maryland – the right regulatory environment To dispel any hope of simplicity, no county zoning regulations are the same. Each is patterned to address citizen concerns, etc. but a table and links are offered in this post to help farmers sell value-added farm products and with agri-tourism uses.
  4. Saving family farms in Maryland – level access to markets How to create a level access to markets is the topic of this last blog which offers why consumers are demanding more local food and helpful solutions to obtaining access for farmers to sell in more places.


A small farm revolution?

A small farm revolution?

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.

Lindsey Lusher Shute

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

Owners and crew at Hearty Roots
Owners and crew at Hearty Roots Community Farm (from website)

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!

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 6.07.03 AMNearly 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.



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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