The tenant house may become a key to the future of agriculture in Maryland. Here are the reasons for my surprising conclusion.
First, Maryland’s land preservation programs were first developed at a time when farmers needed more land and fewer workers. Successful farms were becoming more mechanized. Labor intensive farms and livestock operations were becoming less viable in Maryland. Existing tenant houses were falling into disuse. To avoid more residential development of rural areas, the number of new homes, including tenant houses, on preserved farms was greatly limited.
However, in the last two decades, the local food movement has generated the need for new farmers and they need a place to live. As I mentioned in a previous post, most need to lease land since they don’t have the capital to buy land.
Another trend is that more “farms” now are owned by part-time farmers or hobby farmers, whose operators report a major occupation other than farming. The Economic Research Service of the USDA defines these types of farms as Residential/Lifestyle farms. While they represent the largest percentage of farms by type (roughly 35%) they produce less than 5% of U.S. farm sales. The second largest type of farm is the retirement farm (over 20% of all farms). These operators report that they have retired and they produce less than 3% of all farm sales. These two farm typologies represent nearly 60% of all farms.
In a return trip from Charlottesville this month, I saw dozens of mid-sized farms with huge houses and little active farming visible from the road that appeared to fit the description of a residential/lifestyle farm. We all know of similar farms in Maryland. It is very unlikely that a beginning farmer could afford to rent one of those houses and lease the farm too.
However, a neat little tenant house tucked on the farm is a different story. Some still exist on many farms. Tenant houses used to be nearly as common as barns in Southern Maryland. The year round labor requirements for tobacco necessitated more than the one main farm house. These types of houses are also present throughout the state. Sadly, many of these homes have been torn down in the last few decades and other should be, due to their deteriorated condition.
What if a land owner is willing to host a beginning farmer and a place for that farmer to live, but there is not a suitable tenant house. What are the possibilities?
Fortunately, the quest for smaller houses in the U.S. has yielded some interesting options. Forbes recently reported on Housing Trend Embraced the Mantra: Smaller is Better. PBS has reported about those who have taken the trend to the extreme on Living the Tiny Life. In 2007, Lowes began offering kits for “Katrina Cottages” for as little as $17,000. They were named after the attractive cottages designed to replace the FEMA trailers used to house the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Some of these little sturdy homes could even be relocated as the need arises and they could be great starter homes for beginning farmers.
Of course, there will be challenges to making this happen. Some counties still have minimum size requirements for houses, even tenant houses. Maryland’s “septic bill” could make the cost of the septic system higher than the cost of the house. However, something is going to have to give if we are going to house the next generation of farmers.
Just last month, a farmer contacted me and said that his tenant house would soon be vacant. He wondered if I could find a beginning farmer who might want to rent the house and trade work for some land to farm. Within a few days, I was able to find a match. Both the owner and the beginning farmer are excited!
There is a future for agriculture in Maryland, but the next generation of farmers will need a place to live. Do you have a tenant house and some land you would be willing to lease or trade for work on the farm? Give me a call!