As we move into fall, it marks a good time to look back and reflect, as Maryland FarmLINK just finished the year-end report. FarmLINK helps aspiring farmers locate farmland and find mentors and partners. FarmLINK provides a forum for all farmers to exchange and ask questions, and provides information such as where to find equipment for rent, workshops, land, and general farming news. The popularity of the website continues to grow with visits to the site increasing 134%, to 124,000 in FY’15 and we are thrilled to see so many farmers engaging. We believe that many farmers and local food producers are using FarmLINK as their main resource for updates and information in Maryland.
This is important because within the next 20 years, 75% of the Maryland’s farmland will change hands. The average age of a principal farmer in Maryland is 59 and the average age of the former tobacco farmers is well into the 70s. Add to that, less than 5% of Maryland farmers are under 35 years of age. If we want to continue to build upon local food systems, we must help to grow the growers.
Growing new farmers
Access to land remains a top concern, as land values in Maryland are nearly three times the national average. Also, most farmland offered for sale is sold through a realtor, but realtors are not always familiar with the unique characteristics of selling farmland, and may not be not aware that FarmLINK exists. Many beginning farmers consider leasing farmland to be the most feasible way to start. This past year, we were happy to see several new farmers make leasing arrangements through FarmLINK. Our hope is to connect all types of farms: large-scale farm operators, hobby farmers and beginning farmers looking for their first farm to lease or own.
Furthermore, new farmers who did not grow up on a farm lack access to experienced farmers who can act as mentors. FarmLINK’s Mentor Match program pairs experienced farmers (mentors) with new or transitioning farm owners/operators (mentees) for one-on-one training, advice and interaction. To date, over 46 applications have been received and 17 matches have been formalized.
A recent example, is a couple who signed up for FarmLINK for the property exchange and mentor program. They stated their specifications and were then linked up with Yates Clagett, a Prince George’s County cattle grazier, who had a vacant tenant house and a few small fields that had been laying fallow since the days of growing tobacco.
The mentor program will continue for the southern Maryland region in 2016, you can sign up here. In efforts to foster continual learning, FarmLINK is excited to announce a developing series of mentee profiles, which will be showcased online in October.
Outreach to all Maryland farmers
FarmLINK maintains a current calendar of upcoming seminars, workshops and other educational opportunities around the region which averages 30-50 listings at any time. in 2015 staff expanded on the resource section which provides tutorials on soil analysis, planning and zoning information, farm equipment for rent, a guide to acidified foods, a realtor guide (and list of realtors familiar with selling farmland), and others.
The blog continues to receive 3,000 to 9,000 views per month. The Facebook page is growing as a news source and a place for people to communicate real time (viewers increased 60% in 2015). The Twitter feed posts the top tweets per week on current farming stories and events around the state and country (increased by over 100 followers this year). The Weekly Roundup is sent by email on Friday morning and highlights the best of the week on FarmLINK (over 1500 subscribers, you can sign up here).
Maryland FarmLINK is gaining traction as a web tool and resource to help farmers get access to land or expand their operation. As we’ve mentioned before, a website is just a tool—but it can be an important vehicle that leads to one of the largest investments a farmer makes—his/her land and farm operation. The support of many has been critical to building the capacity of farmers in the region and strengthening networks to improve success. There is still much work to be done, but the future of farming has a chance in this region— we must keep it alive!