We are delighted to be part of the Maryland Collaborative for Beginning Farmer Success that received a grant from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. SMADC supports the effort with enhanced resources on the Maryland FarmLINK website and managing the Mentor Match Program for beginning farmers.
On November 20th, we held the first annual meeting to discuss accomplishments and how we can improve the program. However, prior to the meeting, I had asked mentors and mentees what they might want to learn more about. Learning more about “scaling up” was the the most requested item, so two of our partners in the Collaborative, Shannon Dill and Paul Goeringer, stepped up to provide great information on the use of social media for marketing, dealing with farm labor issues and expanded crop insurance for vegetable and fruit operations under the new Farm Bill.
However, the most attention was centered around Luke Howard’s presentation “Experiences in Scaling Up: Successes and Failures.” Luke and Alison Howard own and operate Homestead Farms, Inc. located in Millington, MD. Luke said that their initial goals for the 77 acre farm when they purchased it in 2002 were to “live the farm life, grow some vegetables and have a few animals for fun.” My sense is that neither would be satisfied with that for long. They seem to love a challenge. Both were familiar with farming, but neither had operated an organic vegetable farm.
Luke balanced humor and honesty in his talk in a way that kept attendees riveted as he described both successes and failures as their operation grew. In a short 11-year span, they scaled up from a 10-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation with some sales at a farmers market and a restaurant, to a 250 member CSA with 60 acres of vegetables and 400 acres of grains (on rented land) and a number of wholesale contracts to popular retail stores and restaurants.
Luke and Alison have focused on diversifying as they scaled up and they are careful, prudent business planners. Luke’s Take Home Message:
- Talk to buyers and get an understanding of the market
- Be fiscally conservative. Don’t risk it all.
- Make sure you have the experience to grow and package.
- Make sure labor is in place.
- Don’t be in a rush. Take it in steps.
- Write out your plan and review with other experts.
As we wrapped up a successful first year in the Mentor Match Program, attendees had lots of good suggestions to ponder. For more information on the Collaborative’s beginning farmer program led by University of Maryland Extension, and our other partners University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Future Harvest CASA, go to the Beginning Farmer Success website. To apply to be a part of our Mentor Match Program, click here.