In my lifetime, most families in America have lost their connection with the land, even those of us who live on a farm. Farms have gone from highly diversified to highly specialized–producing only a few crops. Most U.S. families no longer freeze or can food. We eat from global food sources–tomatoes from Mexico, apples from China, salmon from Norway. Today, over 20% of all vegetables and nearly 50% of all fruits consumed in the U.S. are imported. And most of our food is “processed.” These food products are quick to the table and easy to consume on the road, a place where many of us occasionally grab our nourishment. Corn, soybeans and sugar are subsidized by the federal government and therefore their products are less expensive. Fruits and vegetables are not. Those of limited income and those with poor access to large food chains tend to not have a balanced diet, resulting in increased risk of health problems.
START Farmers’ Network visited Serenity Farm on October 2nd to hear about the exciting happenings there. Franklin Robinson, Jr. described his family’s long history in farming that began in Prince George’s County. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Prince George’s was one of the fastest growing counties in the region. Due to the development pressure around their farm, they purchased Serenity farm in 1965 and permanently relocated their family there in 1975.
Serenity Farm was one of the first farms to be preserved in Charles County. The farm also began agritourism events all the way back in 1982, when Franklin started inviting elementary schools to come to the farm. They recognized how children were attracted to learning about life on a farm. They were also one of the first farm families in Southern Maryland to notice consumer interest in local food. They increased pasture-raised livestock production and began selling directly to consumers at the Harvest House on the farm. Livestock currently raised on the farm include sheep, hogs, cattle and goats. They also have a walk-in petting zoo. The farm is a partner with the National Park Service as a site on the Star Spangled Banner Trail in an effort to allow residents to learn about the culture and history of this region.
Farming 4 Hunger, a 501 (c) 3 was founded in 2012 by Bernie Fowler Jr., a local housing builder from Southern Maryland. After a few decades of success and economic
prosperity, his company and the region’s economy were stopped in their tracks by the Great Recession of 2007. One day while visiting a Maryland Food Bank food drop for the hungry, he recognized colleagues and their families receiving food. Some told him that the donated food helped keep to them in their homes. He was inspired to raise local, fresh vegetables for the area food pantries and banks.
Others have started programs for food donation to give to the poor. Bernie’s approach was to help farmers too. Maryland is comprised of thousands of small and midsized farms, many which have suffered from the national trend toward large scale, single-specialty farm operations. Bernie believes that hardworking farmers need to be able to earn a living wage for their efforts too. In 2011, he approached David Robinson (Franklin’s brother) about growing food for those in need. Bernie also reached out to churches and non-profits to help him raise enough money to pay farmers to produce the food to donate to local food pantries and the regional food banks. He also asked for service organizations, sports teams and churches to join him in harvesting the food to further keep down costs.
This year, Farming 4 Hunger has been reaching out to other farmers to participate in feeding the hunger population. Bernie testified before Maryland House and Senate committees for the approval of SB 586, which authorized a Hub and Spoke Task Force to study ways to encourage farmers to grow food for the hungry. Under this approach, a food hub would aggregate the food from numerous farms in the region and distribute the food in the most efficient manner. Bernie noted that it makes no sense for area food banks to be buying food from Canada that can be produced locally. Meanwhile the Bill calls for studying ways for farmers to get a significant tax incentive if they donate food. Bernie urges the farmers in attendance at the meeting to track the progress of the Hub and Spoke Task Force and consider participating in the program.
Both the Robinsons and the the nonprofit have seen that their efforts yield much more than food for the hungry. They have seen thousands of young people come to the farm to help who learn how food is grown and how they can contribute to the community by exercising their empathy for others. They have seen prison inmates assigned to work on the farm only to be transformed by the mission and the friendships of the Robinsons and the members of Farming 4 Hunger. Both Franklin and Bernie emphasized that community farming can feed body, mind and soul!