Here’s my feature article from What’s Up? Magazine‘s March issue.
Meghan Ochel and Erik DeGuzman are passionate about farming; it’s what they do. They met in 2011 while shopping at a farmers’ market. Meghan was working in public health for the federal government; Erik was a civil engineer draftsman. But beneath their professional exteriors, they discovered a shared passion for farming. And from their meeting, Dicot Farm in Waldorf, Charles County, was born. (Appropriately, a dicot is a single seed producing two, tiny leaves.)
Neither Ochel nor DeGuzman had any background in farming, so they connected with organizations dedicated to encouraging and supporting beginning farmers, Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture) and the Accokeek Foundation. They saved money, got married, and began to work on other farms, learning from experts in the profession. Eventually, the young couple bought a farm of their own, where DeGuzman devotes himself full-time to agriculture, while Ochel keeps her job in the city as a safety net.
From 2015 to 2017, they have doubled their certified organic vegetable production, focusing on specialty salad greens and offering food-prep demonstrations and samples, along with recipes—all to educate their customers. Their organic vegetable production is now year-round. And they’ve added restaurants to their satisfied customer base. Ochel and DeGuzman attribute much of their success to the practical, beginning-farmer training that has been available to them through federal and state-supported organizations.
Food for thought
Those programs that Dicot Farm acknowledges for encouraging and supporting them have been established and funded, primarily, by federal and state mandates. They include the Future Harvest CASA, National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), the Beginning Farmer Advisory Group to the USDA, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the University of Maryland Extension Collaborative for Beginning Farmer Success, and Urban Farm Free School—to name a few. These programs reach out to both urban and rural populations, looking for citizens who might be interested in farming as a way of life. The programs might offer free workshops on what it takes to start farming, or they might survey the farming community to learn more about the problems and concerns of modern-day farm families. Some of these programs serve as conduits between farmers and legislators, keeping the government agencies aware of the needs of farmers.
Feeding our country healthy, safe food is a fundamental responsibility of government. Protecting the land, the crops, and those who farm that land requires planning, funding, and programs. Since 1933, the federal government has passed Farm Bills to set agriculture policies and ensure the funding that legislation demands. Not only must the government protect the quality of the nation’s food, but it must guarantee that the food supply is plentiful.
Diversifying the farms that supply grain, soybeans, livestock, and vegetables protects the food supply from monopolies and massive harvest failures. When 10 percent of the farms control 70 percent of the farmland, our food supply is vulnerable. In 1910, there were about seven million farms, cultivating approximately a billion acres. But by 2002, only about two million farms cultivated that same acreage. But policies are changing, and the government is encouraging and supporting small and beginning farms by making educational and financial support available.
Has this effort to diversify the farms and encourage new farmers been effective? Is there “new blood” in agriculture? According to the most recent Census of Agriculture in 2012, only 22 percent of farms in the United States were “beginning farms” (a farm operated by one principal farmer for less than 10 years). Of those new farmers, 37 percent were 55 years or older, while only 19 percent were younger than 35 years. In fact, the average age of all principal farm operators was just over 58.
Securing the Food Supply
“So, what’s the problem?” youmay be asking.
“The time is now for our country to help young farmers defy the odds, preserve farming as a livelihood, and revitalize our nation’s rural economy,” asserts Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), in a 2017 report.
According to the recent Agriculture & Applied Economics report, there are still three critical challenges facing beginning farmers, which are access to: (1) farmland, (2) capital, and (3) farming expertise. In response to the first two problems, land and capital, in 1980, Congress mandated the Farm Credit System specifically to help young and beginning farmers. Since then, Farm Bills have included funding for training programs for farmers and rangers and authorization to move land from the Conservation Reserve Program to farmland for beginning farmers.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Dr. Kathleen Merrigan notes, “Things are changing in American agriculture, and our perceptions and policies need to keep pace…it’s no longer Old MacDonald of storybook fame. Rather, it’s Ms. MacDonald, a college graduate who didn’t grow up on the farm and considers her farming practices to be sustainable or organic.”
In 2017, the NYFC called for farm policiesin the 2018 Farm Bill that will address:
(1) land access and affordability, (2) helping young farmers manage student debt, (3) increasing a skilled, agricultural workforce, (4) enabling investments in on-farm conservation, (5) improving young farmers’ credit, savings and risk management opportunities, and (6) addressingracial inequity among farmers.
Urban Farm Free School (UFFS) is one of those programs. Sponsored in part by the University of Maryland Extension, the UFFS works to bring farming back to local communities, many of which are urban food deserts where supermarkets and grocery stores are in short supply and offer limited fresh produce.
To kindle an interest in farming, UFFS offers five free courses over a three-month period; the topics include drip irrigation, self-care in a sometimes dangerous and stressful career, marketing, farm insurance and business structuring, and farm finances. Men and women of various ages and levels of experience, like Meghan and Erik, rush from their day jobs in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore to attend these two-hour schools as they examine the possibilities of farming and prepare to become farmers.
Keeping it in the Family
Gary Palmer’s first career as a professional firefighter in Washington, D.C. was stressful but fulfilling. “I loved being a fireman,” he says. “When I retired, I was looking for a way to work for myself, building independence for my family and me.” With that plan in mind, in 2015, Palmer bought 23 acres of land and established Holiday Memories Farm in West River, Anne Arundel County, to raise Christmas trees, fruit trees, vegetables, laying hens, and flowers.
“My uncles were farmers,” Palmer says. “Now, my daughters and sons are working with me on our farm.” Ashleigh Palmer and Kelcie (Palmer) Ca’Nerenb, along with Shannon (Palmer) Pierson, and Zeke Pierson work planting trees and vegetables, and gathering fruit and eggs alongside their dad. Gary’s son, Justin is an active D.C. fireman, but he helps out on the farm when the work piles up, handling a lot of the carpentry chores. Everyone’s involved, and that’s exactly what Gary had hoped for.
The Palmer family farm demonstrates that America’s investment in reinvigorating local farms can succeed. Like Ochel and DeGuzman on Dicot Farm, Palmer has taken advantage of free training and informational programs through Future Harvest CASA and the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corporation.
Future Harvest CASA has been a powerful force in the restoration of a viable farming system in a five-state region: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Future Harvest CASA’s mission is to provide education, networking, and advocacy to help build a sustainable Chesapeake foodshed, where food flows from farm and fishery to table in ways that strengthen farming and the regional food economy, protect our land, water, and air, and provide healthy, nutritious food that sustains the region’s communities and cities.
At one of the Future Harvest CASA’s marketing seminars, Palmer was urged to think about how Holiday Memories Farm could make memories all year long, not only at Christmas time. That led the Palmers to introduce “Sunflower Sundays,” planting sunflowers that they sell at their roadside stand. Then came eggs and chickens—no idea which came first! Soon, Kelcie was offering fresh eggs every week for members of the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
CSAs began about 25 years ago as a way to enhance small farmers’ visibility and bottom line by having the local consumers share the risks as well as the benefits of farming. Consumers commit to buy various produce in specific quantities. The farmer agrees to raise crops and livestock in a sustainable and responsible manner.
Holiday Memories Farm takes advantage of the opportunities that are out there for beginning farmers. They have applied for and received a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the Department of Agriculture, to construct a “high tunnel”—an unheated, hooped greenhouse that allows a farmer to extend the growing season by protecting crops like flowers and vegetables. That extends the farm’s growing season and thus the income stream, and allows for environmentally responsible production methods, such as drip irrigation. Another grant, this time from the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, made possible the Palmers’ expansion into blueberry farming—very popular with their CSA members.
And so it goes. Given opportunities, encouragement, and support, farming becomes a viable career path, even when you start down that path a bit later in life.
No Matter your Age, there’s Room on the Farm
“I’m 71 years old, and farming lets me stay active, physically and intellectually, ten hours a day, every day,” Dean Snyder asserts. Coops and Crops Farm is Dean’s retirement dream.
His first career, the ministry, began in 1968 as pastor to a small United Methodist congregation. “Theology helps me to understand the deepest truths of the universe. Farming helps me understand the deepest truths of the natural world. It’s a perfect fit.” When he retired in 2013 after serving as the pastor of the bustling Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., Snyder began shepherding a smaller flock in Kent County’s Kennedyville. His wife, Jane Malone, works remotely in environmental health policy for a national organization focused on radon risk reduction.
On Coops and Crops’ six acres, Snyder and Malone raise free-range chickens for eggs, Oberhasli goats for milk and cheese, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) vegetables, as well as “value-added” canned goods—condiments, tomato paste, marmalades, jellies, and jams. All of which they sell at two regional farmers’ markets. They’ve taken advantage of workshops and training sessions offered by the University of Maryland Extension: Beginning Farmer Success, the Bionutrient Food Association, and other programs.
The program’s mission is “to increase the number of beginning farmers and acreage farmed by them in Maryland.” Working with nonprofits like Future Harvest CASA, this program supports farms like Coops and Crops, offering free seminars, as well as mentoring and training programs on all aspects of the business of agriculture.
It’s Not the Size of the Fields; it’s the Size of the Dream that Makes a Farmer
Size really doesn’t matter to J.J. Minetola and his wife, Cristina. They’ve been farming two acres in Davidsonville, Anne Arundel County, for three years now, and business is booming. Mise En Place Farm has a niche market, and supplies specialty microgreens to that market. The farm’s name reflects that clarity of their vision; Mise En Place is French for “putting everything in place.”
For 20 years, Minetola’s first career as a chef was all consuming. A highlight of his day was examining the fresh produce as it was delivered. “It was like Christmas morning every day, opening farmers’ produce boxes. Finally, I knew I wanted to fill my own produce boxes.”
In their kitchen garden, the Minetolas began experimentally growing microgreens that he used in his recipes. Microgreens are the young, tender shoots of greens like cilantro, arugula, and sunflower. They found that they could grow and harvest sprouts with exceptional flavor and appearance. Mise En Place Farm grew from those tiny sprouts. The Minetolas, and their son, Dean, adopted a new career—farming. While their acreage and produce are small, their plan for their farm is not. In barely three years, they’ve added two greenhouses and a caterpillar (or hoop) tunnel, which allow Mise En Place Farm to supply restaurants and their individual customers with product year-round. In addition to microgreens, last summer Mise En Place Farm added tomatoes. Their commercial and farmers’ market customers bought all the tasty tomatoes they could produce.
Everything Old is New Again
Another young family who’ve thrown their hearts into small scale, big returns farming is Stefanie and Matt Barfield of Chesterfield Heirloom farm in Wicomico County’s Pittsville. The Barfields along with their sons, Grayson and Jacob, manage a 12-acre market garden, where they raise more than 40 varieties of heirloom and gourmet vegetables and herbs. Like the Minetolas of Mise En Place Farm, the Barfields discovered their love of farming in their own kitchen garden. Their own palates were their guides, as they explored their interest in unique varieties of produce. Most of their vegetables are pre-1940 varieties with names like Bull Nose Peppers, originally raised in the gardens of Monticello, and Ozette Fingerling Potatoes, brought to the New World by Spanish explorers. Their produce reflects the research and passion that went into rediscovering these delicious varieties of vegetables. Chesterfield Heirlooms farm is a labor of love.
All this confirms the surveys of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census on Agriculture. The number of young farmers (under 35) is increasing, and almost 70 percent of these young farmers have college degrees.
Beginning farmers are curious, creative, and brave; they’re working around problems they confront:
• The problem: Land is expensive; their solution: grow microgreens and specialty crops.
• The problem: Income stream is uncertain; their solution: keep one member of the farm family employed beyond the farm.
• The problem: Lack of background in agriculture; their solution: take advantage of the training programs directed specifically at beginning farmers.
• The problem: Trouble breaking into the big business model of producer-client contracts; the solution: turn to direct marketing through Farm-To-Table, farmers’ markets, CSAs, and produce clubs.
There’s always a work-around if you’re a farmer.