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Chesapeake region farm conference shares knowledge, strengthens relationships

Chesapeake region farm conference shares knowledge, strengthens relationships

What better way to kick off the New Year than brushing up on farm skills, and collaborating with other food system innovators. Last week was the annual Cultivate the Chesapeake Conference, hosted by Future Harvest- Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA) – and as usual, it did not disappoint!

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Session on turning farm food seconds into value-added products.

Although there are many winter conferences and meetings, I always return home from this one with my farm knowledge acutely sharpened. It’s a good time to meet with people you don’t see often, drawing upwards of 500 attendees from all over the food system spectrum. While the focus is on sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake, I find the diversity it pulls from incredible– from first-year to seasoned farmers, beekeepers to livestock producers, cut flower and organic growers (hosting workshops together), local food producers to public health workers, seed companies and agriculture organizations.

The real key to success, I heard noted during the workshops, was collaboration and honest feedback with other farmers. Speakers were willing to share books, articles, and lessons learned in the field. In talking with a fellow new farmer, Karyn Owens, after a session on seed varieties, she said, “it was inspiring to see farmers come together and discuss varieties that work for them, either producing large yields or having little disease pressure, while another farmer down the road or the next county over may have different soil or type of growing condition and they prefer another crop variety. But I took away the value of knowledge sharing and being open to trying new things, because you just never know!”

Mike Liker discussing ways to finding the optimal scale for your farm.

The high energy some of the farmers spread while sharing their knowledge was also notable. That can quickly become contagious in a room full of farmers, especially beginning farmers who are just starting out, and trying to make it through initial setbacks. Dave Liker of Gorman Farm, shared his experience with growing too fast. “Don’t take on too much too fast”, he stated, “instead keep gung-hoe working hard in the areas where you’re most passionate.” Listening is key. I heard a lot of, “I’ve been there, trust me, don’t do this, instead try this…” talk at the conference.

Sessions on composting with the ever-inspiring, young farmers of Moon Valley farm helped to consider the economic differences in making compost onsite and trucking it in, and a session on cover cropping provided effective ways to build better soil. I even sat in on a session with a food producer who is taking seconds from local farms and turning them into value-added products, while providing meaningful jobs to women re-entering the job market after incarceration. We heard from powerful keynote speakers, such as Dr. Ricardo Salvador, about leveling the field for farmers success and healthy food. Another Keynote (who considers the Chesapeake region home), Natasha Bowens, spoke about diversity in farming throughout history in America, which she wrote about in her new book, “The Color of Food.”

Young Farmer Meet-up.

Although insightful in itself, I was not just there to listen, but also co-host an interest gathering with the Wallace Center on food hub research, and the potential for Maryland. Maryland food hubs (new and emerging) attended, as well as farmers thinking about selling to food hubs, and farmers who currently sell to food hubs through Tuscarora Organic Growers cooperative, who also happened to be in the room. The discussion focused on where we are as a sector, food hub challenges, and how to keep the momentum going. The gathering provided feedback and information that will help shape a report due out in the spring on the market potential for Maryland food hubs.

Despite all this, I may have been most excited to help organize a young farmer meet-up during the conference with the Maryland Farm Bureau Young Farmers Committee and the Maryland Young Farmers Coalition (a new chapter of the NYFC). Leaders and members of each group, along with other young farmers, came together to learn about how to get engaged and involved. Young farmer groups like these are important to the future of farming in this region that is losing farmers, and farm knowledge, at too fast a pace.

It seems evident (in this day in age) to network and share with peers. Remember to check Maryland FarmLINK and Friday’s Weekly Round-up email which includes upcoming conferences, events, properties, and news relevant to Maryland and regional farming.


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.


Young Farmer Fundraiser draws a crowd!

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!


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.”

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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:

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.




The call for new farmers

The call for new farmers

Never have we experienced this situation before- a shortage of farmers!

In a 1787 letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will, in the end, contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.” For nearly two centuries, most people seemed to agree.

But in the last 50 years, the introduction of commercial fertilizer has meant that less land was needed to produce the same amount of food.  The introduction of larger, more efficient farm equipment has reduced the number of farmers needed and has held down the price of farm goods.

In the last 30 years, schools in Maryland have stopped teaching about farming. Young farmers groups have dwindled or faded away. Many farms no longer have heirs who wish to farm. To maintain an “agricultural use assessment” on their lands, land owners have been leasing their land. Commodity farmers (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) are in need of ever-increasing acreages to compete with even larger farms in the Midwest.

However, in the last two decades, direct-to-consumer marketing has been returning. These farmers have been receiving a larger  percentage of the food dollar. The number of farmers markets has grown 260% since 1994. Commodity prices have also increased in the last few years. There is a shortage of farmers.

Recently, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack called for 100,000 new farmers. The U.S. farm population is aging rapidly and most of the younger family members aren’t stepping up to farm the properties. For every six farmers over 65 years old, there is only one between 25 to 35 years old and the demand for locally sourced food will generate the need for even more small-scale farms.

We need to cultivate a new generation of farmers — and quickly.

Next week, who will be our new farmers?

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