When I was growing up on our family farm, I marveled at how my father knew when the land was too wet to till, when the crop was ready to be harvested, and what to do when the tractor would not start. “Experience is the best teacher” is a phrase we often hear. We can learn a great deal from prepared materials in a class or on line, but until we do it ourselves or with an experienced person, we have not mastered the subject. Observing and mimicking my father’s work, I learned a few things about farming.

Benjamin Franklin took the “experience” quote further. He said “Experience is the best teacher, but a fool will learn from no other.” Many of us will try to figure out how to do most things ourselves. That may build character, but it might not pay the bills. Trial and error often leads to error, especially in farming.

Generations ago, a parent or neighbor who lived on the adjacent farm could answer the questions of a new farmer. Today, the parent of a new farmer may not have farmed, the closest farm might be miles away and a farmer with experience in a specific specialty crop might be several counties away.

At the turn of the 20th century, farms were very diversified according to the USDA study entitled Trends in U.S. Agriculture.  Nearly every farmer raised farm animals and grew vegetables and fruit for personal use and for sale to the general community. It was easy to find mentors as everyone in a farming region was doing basically the same kind of farming. According to the report, by the turn of the 21st century, most farms had become specialized, relying on just a few crops for their financial success. In one century, we became a nation of specialty farms.

This year, University of Maryland Extension, and its four partners, SMADC, Future Harvest-CASA, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, were awarded a USDA grant  for the Maryland Collaborative for Farmer Success. Its goal is to increase the number of successful beginning farmers and the acreage that they farm in Maryland. One of SMADC’s duties will be to match experienced, successful farmers interested in becoming mentors with beginning farmers interested in becoming mentees.

SMADC’s Program is being modeled after the successful Maryland Grazers Network, where experienced dairy and meat producers are matched with those who want to grow these animals on pasture. The mentee visits the mentors farm and vice versa. Over a period of time, the mentee is encouraged to call the mentor with questions and occasionally the  mentor contacts the mentee to see how things are going. To pay for their trouble, mentors are paid a modest stipend, which comes from the grant funds. The Grazers Network Project Team provides technical assistance and includes experts in pasture and forage management, financial management, marketing, and funding resources.

SMADC’s Mentoring Program will identify farmers with other areas of expertise, such as grapes, produce, and horticulture and match them up with beginning farmers or farmers  trying a new type of farming operation who need expert advice. By the Spring of 2013, we plan to have in place the process for linking mentors with mentees. Please follow the progress on Maryland Farmlink.

USDA predicts that half of all farmers will retire in the next ten years, yet the demand for locally-sourced food is increasing and the export market is growing. Now is the time to train the new generation of farmers; let’s learn from experience!