On the evening of November 22nd, I was grateful to be one of four panelists in a room of 40+ young farmers. As I understand it, this was the first time that the Southern Maryland Farm Bureau Young Farmer groups had been invited to a regional mixer and all five counties were represented. It was held at Robin Hill Farm & Vineyard in Brandywine, MD in a handsome barn that has been renovated to hold events. Our hostess was Shelby Watson. She is part owner of Robin Hill, and she had just completed her term as chair of the Young Farmers in PG County. Aside from the chance to inform attendees about the resources that SMADC and Maryland FarmLINK have to offer, it gave me the chance to assess the leadership and strength of the Young Farmer groups in Southern Maryland.
Joining me at the speakers’ table were Janna Howley, Agricultural Marketing Specialist, in the Prince George’s County University of Maryland Extension Office; Jessica Cruise, Hughesville Branch Manager for Colonial Farm Credit and a member of the state Young Farmers Board; and Steve McHenry, Executive Director, MARBIDCO. In a format that she arranged, Jamie Tiralla, President of the Calvert County Young Farmers and co-owner of Monnett Farms, asked panelists questions about the services that they provide for young farmers.
After the panelists spoke, attendees were invited to ask questions. David Hancock, a young farmer and President of the Charles County Farm Bureau, talked about the generational differences in the farm community. Young farmers have a wider variety of interests, and he asked how they can convince the older generation that there is a legitimate future for the next generation of farmers. That question raised a healthy discussion, one that I believe has been churning in the minds of many farm families for decades.
When I was in the Young Farmers group in the 1970s, the outlook for young farmers was grim. The number of farms was declining rapidly as farmers moved toward specialization to compete in the world marketplace. One average-sized Maryland farm was too small to earn a living. Those who survived had to lease other farms. In addition, subdivisions were popping up throughout the rural areas of Maryland within commuting distance of urban areas. Many school systems stopped teaching agriculture classes. Hope was in short supply.
Many farm parents told their children that they would like for them to farm, but they should pursue another career anyway, considering the the prospects for earning a living farming. Subconsciously, many farm families seemed to be resolved to farming as best as they could until the last crop – housing.
However, many counties in Maryland have figured out ways to reduce residential sprawl and permanently protect prime farming areas. The buy-local movement and the agritourism industry are providing new markets and customers. The new farming generation is seeing opportunities where older generation farmers still have a more somber view.
After the panelists discussed the potential markets, Shelby asked attendees what types of farming they were actively pursuing. They ranged from beef, chickens, hay, vegetables, agritourism, tobacco, grapes and commodity crops, with the highest level of interest in livestock and hay.
Hope is not an easily manufactured commodity. It arises from opportunity and flourishes with effective leadership. The young farmers today are better organized. They recognize the potential of the locally-sourced food movement and are networking and using technology and social media to market their products. They realize the importance of educating consumers, many who have a healthy concern for the global food system. They are taking advantage of available farm assistance programs and are supporting the introduction of agriculture classes in the public school systems. Three of the county public school systems have already started teaching ag classes again.
At the mixer, I was delighted to see the strength of the leadership and the level of attendance from the five county groups. Hope for farming was in good supply.