In the first series post, I described marketing and climatic advantages that make Maryland an attractive location for new agricultural ventures. In last week’s post, I highlighted land preservation and regulatory efforts to support farming. A few tough issues remain for identifying and recruiting enough Maryland farmers for the future. In this, the third and final post on recruiting new Maryland farmers, I discuss ag in the schools, access to farmland, and educating the consumer.
Many millennials seem to have a genuine interest in farming, but most have not had access to farmer education. A few are pursuing the programs outlined in part 2 once they leave high school or college despite the lack of access to ag in the classroom. Exposure to a career in agriculture should be introduced much earlier in life.
Back in the 1970s, many school systems throughout the country stopped offering agricultural classes and Future Farmers of America programs. I recall that 1977 was the last year that the Calvert County School System offered ag classes. The graduates of the last FFA classes include many prominent County farmers today, such as Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl (Buddy) Hance, Walt Wells, and Wilson Freeland. When ag in the classroom ended, few young people considered agriculture as a career. That is why I am so pleased that agriculture is being re-introduced in many of the Maryland school systems, including 40 high schools, with the assistance of the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation, Inc.
Another challenge for those interested in farming is finding a place to farm. Maryland Extension programs provide ag training regardless of land ownership. However, the question remains, how can you farm if you do not own or lease land? In the last year, University of Maryland Extension has been making it easier to work through the farmland lease process. A new guide, Agricultural Leasing in Maryland, has been developed to assist land seekers and land owners address key issues to help insure an amicable and successful working relationship.
Still, if you lack experience in farming, it will be a challenge to find banks who will lend you money, or land owners who will lease you land. Already, a few nonprofits are stepping up to identify incubator sites for new farmers to learn their trade and start their businesses. Once the new farmers establish their business plans and resumes, they will be able to compete for land to lease or purchase.
The final issue is educating the consumer. By nature, we are all looking for good deals–for the most product at the lowest cost. Food shopping is no different. In the last 60 years, Americans have been blessed with lower cost food, which has allowed them to spend more on other items. In 1929, Americans spent 22.7% of household disposable income on food. In 2011, the number had dropped to around 11%. The industrialization of farming and advances in genetics and pesticide management have helped to reduce food costs and more recently trade agreements have introduced lower priced farm products as the food industry has globalized. Today, 39% of all fruits sold in America are imported and about 20% of all vegetables are imported, according to the USDA.
In Maryland, locally sourced food is worth the price. The recent collapse of the clothing manufacture facility in Bangladesh has reminded us of the consequences of making “cost” the primary determinant on purchasing from the global markets. Trade agreements rarely consider labor or environmental standards. In addition to touting the freshness and flavor of the food produced, farmers need to inform consumers about how their products are produced and under what conditions. In Maryland, the advantages of purchasing locally sourced food are reinforced at the Maryland’s Best website, as part of the Maryland Farm to School Programs and during the Buy Local Challenge issued every year, during the last full week of July.
While more work is needed with respect to ag education, access to land and educating the consumer, Maryland seems to be on the right track to assist in the establishment of the next generation of Maryland farmers.