strawberriesIn last week’s post, I described marketing advantages that make Maryland an attractive location for new agricultural ventures. Living within or near the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country with the highest median income has its advantages. The residents have a $26 Billion food budget to spend! And soils and climate yield a great variety of food products.

But what about the regulatory environment and farmer support?

Preserving Farmland First

Nationwide, one will find that urbanizing states lose their farmland to residential and commercial development. While Maryland has experienced its own sprawl, it has been proactive in preserving farmland. Over recent decades, the state and counties have developed some of the most innovative land preservation programs in the country and protected over 800,000 acres of farmland via easement donation, easement purchase, transferable development rights and other tools. The state’s 30+ Land Trusts play a vital role. An example is the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy which works to  preserve and sustain the farms and communities of the Eastern Shore.

Most counties have also improved their comprehensive plans and zoning regulations to protect their farmland resources while encouraging growth in designated areas with facilities to support such growth. In sum, Maryland continues to have one of the most successful farmland preservation efforts in the country.

Learning to live with Non-farm Neighbors

The plethora of new residents in a vibrant metropolitan region can be a blessing and a curse for farmers.subdivision areal  New residents can mean new customers, but they can be nosy neighbors who do not understand or appreciate the noises, dust, or odors associated with various farming practices.

The locally-sourced food movement, which has grown and flourished in the last two decades,  caught zoning departments by surprise across the nation. Zoning regulations are intended to protect health, safety and welfare of residents and to protect use and enjoyment of properties. However, few counties had zoning regulations that properly addressed  on-farm value-added food operations, farmers markets, wineries, agri-tourism, etc. Farmers struggled to get permits for farm products that customers wanted. The traffic generated by creameries, corn mazes, etc. raised the hackles of neighbors expected to retire to a bucolic existence when they bought their place in the country.

Recognizing the importance of farming to their economy and culture, most counties have  revised their zoning ordinances in the last few years to specifically allow for roadside stands, farm kitchens, wineries, breweries, corn mazes, etc. along with conditions that help mitigate the impacts on neighboring properties. To learn more about each county’s plans and regulations for farming, visit the zoning tutorial.

The state has also eased regulations to allow on-farm wineries and breweries and eased and streamlined regulations for on-farm acidified foods production. The state adopted enabling Right-to-Farm legislation and most counties have adopted their own Right-to-Farm ordinances, which provide some protection for farmers from nuisance complaints. Right-to-Farm ordinances often include a local conflict resolution team to address land use conflicts before they reach the courts, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture also has its Conflict Resolution Service.

Assisting with Farm Production and Marketing 

farm equipmentThe cost of starting a farming production operation can be steep. Federal, state, regional and county agencies can help ease the path to profitability. In addition to the wide variety of USDA loans and Farm Credit loans, Maryland formed the Maryland Agricultural & Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO), which provides loans and grants to farmers, foresters and seafood producers. The website includes the 2012 Annual Report and available grants and loans. The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission was formed to help tobacco farmers transition to other crops, and it provides grants and support to farmers in the five county region. In addition, eight counties rent farm equipment to reduce upfront capital costs for farmers.

beginning farmer successNew and beginning farmer training comes from many sources. In 2012, the University of Maryland Extension received a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and has started Beginning Farmer Success, a partnership with University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), Future Harvest CASA (FH CASA), and Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC). Through this collaborative effort, Maryland county extension agents and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore provide beginning farmer training classes, farm business planning and field trips. Future Harvest CASA provides a “shoulder-to-shoulder” Beginner Farmer Training Program and partners with Farm Alliance-Baltimore and Real Food Farm to hold an Urban Farm Series. Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission maintains the Maryland FarmLINK website and has an on-line mentoring program and a Mentor Match program. For 2013, the Mentor Match program will focus on assisting beginning farmers interested in vegetables, wine grapes, agritourism, pasture poultry and rabbits.

Many other organizations are providing vital services to new and beginning farmers. For  example, the Maryland Grazers Network matches experienced livestock, dairy, sheep and poultry producers with farmers who want to learn new grazing skills. The Maryland Agricultural Resource Council (MARC) and Accokeek Foundation provide classes and seminars for farmers. Maryland Agricultural Marketing Professionals  are advocates for new or expanding farming ventures and assist with farm business plans and marketing strategies.

Food safety is a growing concern in the U.S., and many major grocery chains are requiringGAP that farm products be certified safe through the institution of some form of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). Maryland Department of Agriculture is helping farmers meet existing GAP requirements and prepare for new ones through its Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices program.

For those who wish to grow organically, the Maryland Department of Agriculture provides its Certified Maryland Organic program.  The Maryland Department of Agriculture is a USDA accredited certifying agent for producers and handlers. Organic growers can also join the Maryland Organic Food and Farmers Association (MOFFA), a non-profit educational organization​​. MOFFA publishes a newsletter, holds workshops and events. At its annual meeting, you can hear from University of Maryland researchers on the latest crop research.

With a short blog, it is impossible to thoroughly cover all the ways that Marylanders are working to make the state a great place for new farmers. A more complete list of farm support organizations is on Maryland FarmLINK’s Organizations page. Suffice it to say that Maryland residents value the state’s long farming legacy and are working to keep it a vital industry into the future.

Next week we will discuss some work still in progress to make that vision a reality.