Nestled within the large grain farms on the Eastern Shore is Princess Anne, home to the
University of Maryland Eastern Shore. And within this attractive rural school is the Small Farm Institute, a collaborative of the University and the USDA-Office of Advocacy and Outreach for small-scale, limited-resource, and/or socially disadvantaged farmers and landowners in Maryland and Virginia. Its mission is an interesting contrast to the scale of the farming operations that dominate the Eastern Shore.
Nationwide, the trend has been toward larger farms, which has pushed out thousands of farmers, especially small-scale, limited-resource and/or socially disadvantaged farmers. In 1920, the number of non-white American farmers in the U.S. constituted 14.3 percent of farm operators. Over 50 percent of all minority farmers were tenants. Courts, policy and society favored the land owner. By 2007, that number dropped to 3.6 percent. In a recent Scientific American article, authors noted that New Deal farm programs mainly favored white landowners and, more recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture used discriminatory policies against black farmers from 1981 to 1996.
At the Small Farm Conference held this past weekend at UMES, there were excellent resource materials for farmers on farm loans, farm mediation, farmer training, etc. I was also drawn to a display about George Washington Carver, an African American widely known for his contributions to agriculture in the 20th century. In the South, farms were predominantly monocultures of commodity crops such as cotton, wheat and rice. Carver urged that farmers move toward more diversification of crops which he felt would benefit both farmers and farming. At the beginning of the 21st century, that message is again being heard and the locally-sourced food movement has created new opportunities for small-scale farmers.
I spoke at the first session of the Beginning Farmer track with Ben Beale, Extension Agent in St. Mary’s County and part of the Beginning Farmer Success Collaborative. At our session, conferees expressed interest in growing vegetables, goats, sheep, chickens, flowers, etc. Ben noted that a full-time vegetable farmer could make it with as little as 10 acres, while a farmer raising goats might be profitable on as little as 50 acres. There were sessions on poultry processing, using sheep and goats to aid in weed control, world-foods ethnic crops, multi-species cover cropping, etc.
George Washington Carver would have been proud!