May’s garden column for What’s Up? Magazine

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April’s Gardens Column: Veggies Get a Makeover

veggies.jpgWe’ve all seen them, admired them, but were relieved they weren’t the view from our

We’ve all seen them, admired them, but were relieved they weren’t the view from our bedroom window. I’m talking about vegetable gardens. Tidy rows of corn, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and pepper plants; carefully arranged straw beneath the plants; mulched paths between each row, and chicken-wire barriers guarding those tender plants from rabbits and deer. Yes, vegetable gardens are to be admired, but admit it–they’re not very attractive! Who wants to look at the neighbors’ staked tomato plants and rangy rows of corn stalks, no matter how delicious the produce will taste, or how many bags of vegetables are left at your door?

Do not despair. If you want to provide your table with fresh vegetables all summer long, but you don’t want to lose your neighbor’s goodwill; if you want healthy, ripe tomatoes for your summer salads, and you think vegetable gardening is a labor of love, but you dread the no-nonsense appearance of rows of vegetable plants, I have a solution for you. Veggies can contribute to a lovely, lush garden as well as a delicious, inviting meal.

Here’s how: Take a hint from our friends, the French. They are renowned for their potagers, commonly known here as kitchen gardens. A traditional kitchen garden contains some combination of four types of plants; vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers. (Yes, I did say flowers; remember, you can eat marigolds, pansies, nasturtiums, and sunflower seeds, among other lovely flowers.)

The kitchen garden is a bit less formal than our workman-like vegetable gardens. The secret is design. It’s all about appearances. You can still have your lettuce, your tomato plants, your beans, and carrots. Just consider grouping your plants in such a way as to produce an inviting sight for passerby and next-door neighbor.

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First, color. Of course, in the height of summer tomato plants are stunning with their inviting red-orange fruit. Peppers add red and yellow to the garden, too. Red cabbage, scarlet runner beans, red leaf lettuce, and ruffled arugula are impressive when they mature. Now add to your kitchen garden color palate some nasturtium. These small-blossoms in mighty gold, orange, and red are popular in salads and as garnish; they’re also rich in vitamin C. And fellas, eating nasturtium blossoms is believed to help control hair loss.

After you’ve considered all the edible colors, think about adding a few annuals to fill-in the beds while your vegetables are growing and ripening. A few geraniums and some impatiens can liven up the beds for the early part of the summer.

Think of your veggie beds, like your flowerbeds, in three dimensions. Use some graph paper to work out your color and height design. (We’ve all seen those very professional diagrams in gardening books, but ours need not be quite so tidy.) Keep in mind the amount of sunlight and, if necessary, wind likely to affect each bed. Plan for your watering system too. Hopefully, you’ll be able to water all your vegetable beds, but if not, do a bit of research on which vegetables need less water.

There are three secrets to a beautiful kitchen or vegetable garden, according to Fine Gardening’s Jennifer Bartley

Let’s consider these three guidelines individually. 

1. Include color and flowers in your garden layout plan.

2. Choose an attractive enclosure. It will keep unwanted visitors from taste testing your garden’s bounty and provide a sense of serenity and sanctuary.

3. Keep your garden’s vegetable beds crisp and tidy.

Kitchen gardens usually include herbs such as lavender, basil, sage, chives, lemon balm, and oregano. Herbs are hardy plants, and they’ll take over any flowerbed in time, given a chance. To keep your herbs in check and easily available to you, potting is a great solution. Gather a number of clay pots, and set your herbs. (You may want to label the pots, but the herbs appearances are quite distinctive as they grow.) These herb pots can make a pretty patio border, or you can place them randomly throughout the vegetable beds. Move them about based on which herbs you’re cooking with or what needs more or less sun.

Grouping your vegetables by height, size, and color doesn’t mean you must put all your carrots in one bed, or that those gangly corn stalks must stand together. You might have carrots or parsley as edgings of two or three beds. Interior to the edging plants may be several clumps of lettuce in a variety of colors and leaf formations. Farther in may be just the place to plant and stake a couple of tomato plants. You’ll want them in far enough so they don’t spill onto the path, but close enough, so you can reach to pluck those ripened tomatoes; and don’t we know, they all seem to ripen at once. Three or four corn stalks might anchor the middle of beds, or those stalks may grow nicely near the privacy fence and beside the garage—assuming there’s sufficient sunlight. One added suggestion: Keep your perennials in beds separate from your annuals. That makes fall and spring clean-up much simpler.

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Thinking about things you do need to plan for brings us to the issue of supporting the stalks as the plants mature and the vegetables ripen. Of course, we all know we can rely on those wire-plant cages available at every hardware store. They’re efficient, and if you’re lucky, the plants will be lush enough to hide the wire corset beneath the foliage. Ah, but why not try something a bit more interesting?

There are some old-fashioned, fairly simple and interesting methods for staking your vegetable plants. Start with the tepee. (Here’s a great task to assign any little people in your family or curious, young, neighbor children.) Collect strurdy, straight sticks—perhaps three or four feet long. You’ll need three for each tepee, plus some sturdy cotton or hemp twine. Or, for a very authentic look, gather wild grape vines for the ties. Over each small tomato, bean, or pea plant, position three twigs, crossing one another in a three-dimensional “X” design, like the supports of a tepee. Lash the mid-point of the tepee with the twine or vine. There you have it. Pretty supports for your growing plants. (If you have engaged the help of children for the tepee making, you may want to construct the tepees away from the veggie beds, perhaps on the lawn or patio. That way, careless feet won’t trample the young vegetable plants. You can later place the tepees over the plants yourself.)

Another attractive approach to the stick supports is a dome of supple branches. Instead of stiff sticks, look for supple ones. Find three or four of the same length, probably three or four feet long if you’re supporting tomatoes. Bend the supple twigs so they arch over the young plant, forming a dome. Each end of the twig will easily poke down into the soil. It won’t take long for the vines to grow up and drape over the twigs.

Carry on the natural theme in your garden by devising a “wattle” fence at some appropriate point or around the veggie beds to keep out hungry wild things. Here too is a chance to use the skills of your young Girl Scout or Boy Scout. Choose sturdy, reasonably thick and straight fence posts, approximately 36 inches long. But the height will depend on your needs and aesthetics. Set the posts into the beds equal distance apart, perhaps two feet. Next, collect supple, fairly thin branches. Forsythia and willow twigs make great weaving material, with the added advantage that you’re trimming the shrub, another useful garden task. Weave the long, flexible branches between the two-foot posts, in and out. You’ll find it fairly easy to move around the flowerbed’s curves and irregular shape. When the wattle, aka willow or forsythia branches, begins to dry, the wattle fence will remain sturdy and amazingly effective for discouraging rabbits, cats, dogs, and other small invaders.

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You may find your use of natural elements for staking and fencing adds a softening effect to the veggie beds, particularly as the plants begin to fill-in. Another way to naturally delineate portions of your garden is with hedges. The only caution is that they’ll take a long time filling in. You’ll need a long-term vision for hedges. Maryland is a perfect climate for boxwood hedges. They’re easy to grow and trim. Berry bushes are another subtle fencing approach. They’re harder to keep in check, tending to throw out long, spindly, sometimes prickly branches. If you’re very brave or have an experienced gardener, espaliered apple and pear trees, trained along a wall or fence, create an elegant, striking border. Espalier is the training of fruit trees to grow in only two dimensions, usually supported by a trellis or against a wall.

These complex growing projects bring me an easy solution to one of our vegetable garden’s awkward elements. What do we do when we start to harvest that tasty lettuce, carrots, and cabbages? Our vegetable gardens begin to look rather tired. Those unsightly vacant spaces where plants have been harvested can be dealt with. Pick up a few pretty flowers or use some of your herb’s pots. As you harvest vegetables, fill the empty spots with pots of bright petunias or daisies, or move some of your now-flourishing herbs from the patio into those bare spots.

Like its sister the flower garden, the vegetable or kitchen garden can be attractive as well as a useful element of our landscaping.

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No Kidding?

Here’s a recent gardens column from What’s Up? Magazine.

Spring is just around the corner, or at least most of us hope so. With the wild winds of March upon us and April’s rain close behind, it’s time to review our plans for our gardens—and our gardeners.

Perhaps you’re a gardening mom, dad, granddad, or grandmother. Maybe you have young children or even pre-adolescents in your neighborhood. Investing time in the garden with the children in your life may prove fun, and a lifelong gift for the children and for you. Let me offer some suggestions for gardening with children.

Before we get to specific ideas for garden projects with children of different ages and with different interests, let me list some basic pointers that will be useful if you undertake sharing your interest in gardens with children:

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” says the old adage. In this age of Google, when you can get a picture of anything within 30 seconds, introducing children to gardens is much easier if you show rather than tell children about the garden—what a seed looks like when it sprouts, how much soil a seedling needs around it, what a weed looks like. Show, don’t tell, applies to activities too. On your knees among the children or elbow to elbow with your young gardener is the best place to really teach children about plants and planting.

Let’s all get dirty! Relax, enjoythe mess of soil, water, and curious children.

You’ll need the real deal—tools that is. Avoid the plastic tool set from the local Dollar Store. Provide a trowel, a watering can, and a pair of gloves that will fit the size and strength of your young gardener. (Be sure to have enough tools for all the children to avoid conflict. They can use Sharpies to decorate the handles of their own trowels.)

Most children have short attention spans. Be flexible; have lots of little things to look at or do for those first few garden adventures. Instead of asking a 10-year-old to plant eight seedlings in a row, you might suggest she plant a seedling, dig a few holes for future planting, look for some slender twigs to hold identification signs, and design a sign with an index card and a few crayons or colored pencils.

Young children need instant gratification—sometimes we all do. Try a quick-growing vegetable such as radishes, which are ready to eat in three or four days. Or, plant seeds with the little gardener, but pick-up some seedlings, a couple of inches tall, to plant alongside the seeds. Maybe you can even find an almost-mature plant of the same variety for immediate satisfaction for your young tomato farmer.

“Farm to table” can work with kids too. You might plan a meal or a dish with your little gardeners. If one child plants lettuce, another raises a tomato plant, and a third harvests cucumbers, you’ve got a salad for lunch to which everyone has contributed.

Now that we have a few basic precepts, let me divide my suggestions into three groups

1 Ideas for gardening with pre-adolescents

2 Ideas for gardening with little people

3 Ideas for gardening with children who have special needs


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Those high-energy 8 to 12-year olds may be a challenge, but a garden is a great place for these youngsters to hang out, when the house is too small, and the world is too large. Taking out some frustration by pulling weeds, or getting some gratification from harvesting your own, tender carrots, or satisfying your romantic nature by creating a fairy garden where only you are in charge may be a real lifesaver.

For our grownup sensibilities, let’sreview some of the useful knowledgepre-teens can learn in the garden:

Number one, self-reliance. Once you’ve introduced the basics and given over a portion of the flower beds or a plot of soil, step away from the project—unless, of course, you have the good fortune to be invited by your 10-year-old to help her set up the fairy castle under the Japanese maple. Or, you may find your 12-year-old complaining at lunch that slimy slugs are crawling around his tomato plant. “What do you think I should do to get rid of them, Grandpa?”

Number two, basic biology and horticulture. (Great preparation for high school.) While making those identification signs, they’ll learn the common plants’ names and information such as edible vs. inedible, sun vs. shade loving, moist vs. dry. They’ll learn about food production and preservation, germination, erosion, and insect infestations and treatments.

Number three, the value of patience and observation. Children develop these qualities over time, with practice. Gardening provides a perfect activity for developing these skills.

Here are a few projects you might introduce to your young gardener:

A Butterfly Garden: Offer a portion of the garden where some wildness can be tolerated. Your young gardener can research types of butterflies common to our region. Then, determine what kinds of plants will entice those butterflies to stop by and deposit cocoons. Among favorites for butterflies are asters, lavender, milkweed, clover, and violets. My neighbor has had success luring swallowtails to her yard with fennel plants. We’ve had fun watching the cocoons and emerging butterflies.

Art Projects: If fussing about in the dirt doesn’t seem to interest your youngsters, suggest she or he decorate the garden. Some easy creations might be preparing staked signs for the plants and trees in the garden. Building a birdbath or feeder could be fun. (Remind your young builder to research the depth of birdbath water; you don’t want to drown the thirsty birds. And, be sure the birdfeeder is designed to be reasonably safe from marauding squirrels and cats. Gathering interesting flatware, old jewelry or metal scraps to create a wind chime, then figuring out where and how to hang the wind chime will intrigue some pre-teens. Or, build a scarecrow. Halloween is always in season for this age group. The old clothes box and wood scrap pile have just the makings of a fine, scary guard for those flower or vegetable plots.

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Young children, 2 to 7-year olds, are usually more enthusiastic about mucking about in the dirt. The trick is to corral their energy and curiosity, so they begin to acquire some appreciation for gardens. The useful skills and knowledge you’ll be imparting might include: developing the child’s attention span, gross and fine motor skills, simple problem solving, and outcome predictions. The projects for this age group are short-term and straightforward.

Flower Pool or Flower Box: 

Depending on your available space, use a kiddie pool or a wooden or plastic storage box as the container for vegetables and flowers.

Decide on a location which has some sunlight every day and where it will be easy to water the plants. Punch a few drain holes (not too large) in the container’s bottom.

In the bottom, layer pebbles and sand; then cover that layer with garden soil. (Avoid putting soil too deep. The container will be very heavy, and in a rainstorm, the plants could wash out, over the sides.) Dampen the soil.

Encourage your gardeners to “plan” what they want to plant and where they will plant. Draw a simple diagram marking where holes should be dug. If your little gardener is interested, he or she could draw pictures of the anticipated plants.

Together, choose seed packets at the hardware store. Check to see if the seeds need to be soaked before planting. (Perhaps you can buy seedlings of the same plants. It’s fun to have the immediate gratification of seeing the growing plant.)

From this point, it’s a matter of watering, observing, talking about what is growing, pulling out any little weeds that might find their way into the garden box.

Take time for daily observations with the little gardeners. You can encourage them to illustrate the growth and measure the sizes. Eventually, there may be flowers to pick or vegetables to harvest.

Potato Sprouts & Root Cuttings: This is a great precursor to the ubiquitous science projects you’ll soon be undertaking with your little gardener.

Choose a wide, low jar or glass,one for each rooting or sprout.Fill the jar with water.

Select a chubby potato, some branches of herbs such as rosemary or mint, or forsythia or willow twigs.

If you’re doing the potato, cut the spud in half. Poke toothpicks around the diameter, about 1/2 inch below the cut surface. The toothpicks will serve as scaffolding to hold the potato just immersed part way into the water. (Don’t let the potato fall into the water. It won’t sprout if it’s underwater.)

If you’re doing the twigs, simply put the bunch of twigs in the jar. They can be a variety, which makes it fun to identify which is the mint and which the willow.

Put the jar in a sunny window or shelf. Watch that enough water remains in the jar.

Within a week or so, you’ll begin to see green shoots pop up from the eyes of the potato, or small hair roots grow out from the immersed branches.

Over the next week, watch as the new growth transforms potato sprouts or branches. Drawing and talking aboutwhat is occurring makes a fun project even better.

Finally, you can plant thepotato and the branches inpots or in flowerbeds. They’ll grow into handsome, mature plants, no doubt.

Of course, there are lots of other activities to do with small children. You’ll find ones that are interesting to you as well as to your little gardeners.

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Finally, a few thoughts on gardening with special needs children. Gardening helps improve everyone’s motor skills, creativity, and self-confidence. And that’s particularly important for people with special needs. When you’re gardening, stress and anxiety seem to melt away, and if there are other gardeners about, it’s easy to talk about the weather or the sprouting potatoes. These benefits are particularly important for those with developmental and learning disabilities.

Any garden project will work; only a few safety precautions and adjustments might be necessary.

Use tables to hold pots and flower boxes so gardeners in wheelchairs can work in the soil.

Work as a team; keep the ratio high; one helper to one gardener is best.

Avoid tight schedules and time constraints. Easy, repetitive tasks are perfect.

Use pictures to explain processes, and take lots of pictures of the projects.

Choose sturdy equipment and materials.

Avoid crowding the gardeners. Leave lots of space between each gardener’s plot.

When all the seeds are sown, and all the flowers planted, you and the children will have lots of shared laughs and solved problems to reflect upon—together.

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Fresh Farms Taking Root

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.

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What’s Next? USDA & USAID Specialist, Poet, Warrior Against Hunger

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“My career was devoted to pridefully showcasing the power of American food production, and at the same time, making sure that our farms remain wonderfully innovative and sustainable because we constantly learn from others around the world,” said Maryland resident Hiram Larew, who calls himself a “hunger specialist.”

Larew spent his professional life fighting hunger and promoting innovative agriculture around the world. Born and raised in Virginia, he studied horticulture and botany, earning a Ph.D. in entomology. He began his career as a research entomologist at the USDA facility in Beltsville, Maryland. There he spearheaded many important science projects including research into the control of the leafminer, which at that time threatened to destroy acres of U.S. vegetable and ornamental crops. In this early phase of his career, he learned about neem seed extract which, while little known in the Western world, had been used for centuries in India and elsewhere to control insects and cure human ailments. His interest in solutions from abroad began when he found that the extract was very useful in controlling leafminers and a host of other pests including some plant diseases.

After 10 years with the USDA, he transferred to the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he helped advise on the safe use of pesticides around the world. He also led efforts to strengthen colleges and universities in developing countries as well as ensure that people with disabilities were treated more fairly and respectfully in poorer countries.

“Early on, I did begin to believe that there was a lot we could learn from listening to and watching farmers and their families from around the world,” Larew said. “Often these farmers eke out a living while contending with poor soils, limited water and other severe limitations. They must be resourceful and innovative. And this made me realize that ‘culture’ in the word agriculture plays an important role in our respect for farming, wherever it is practiced.”

Eventually, he returned to the USDA as a director of the international team in the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. There, Larew helped guide Extension-building programs in countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Armenia and elsewhere. He also facilitated youth programs such as 4-H as they were offered around the world.

“American youth programs like 4-H are the envy of the world,” he said.

His team also hosted visiting groups of farmers from South Korea, the Caribbean and Africa as they toured farms in the U.S., and reciprocally, as American farmers traveled to Central Europe or other world regions to learn first-hand of successful practices. Larew became adept at encouraging the exchange of ideas among men and women from different cultures, all speaking different languages, but sharing an abiding respect and love for the land and agriculture.

After retiring in 2015, Larew volunteered with the Farm Journal Foundation’s Lead Farm Program, which brings well-respected American farmers to congressional hallways as advocates for hunger alleviation around the world.

“It’s hard to attribute one thing to another, but I suspect that a key reason that the 2018 Farm Bill includes wonderful opportunities for American farmers to partner internationally is because of the advocacy work done by the Lead Farmers,” Larew said. “American farmers can really make the case to the Congress why we should be involved in global hunger programs.”

Throughout his career, “I tried to find useful connections across country borders that should have existed but didn’t,” Larew said.

And that theme, building those connections, links or bridges has guided his activities since his retirement.

“I am less interested in bureaucracy,” he said. “I devote my time to things that make me grin.”

Building bridges of communication remains central to Larew’s life, particularly a bridge between his lifelong work on alleviating hunger and his expanding role as an American poet.

Larew was already a recognized poet in the Mid-Atlantic region by the time he retired. He has several published collections of his poems in bookstores, and often participates in poetry readings and conferences around the country.

Maryland’s Poet Laureate, Grace Cavalieri said, “Hiram combines the best part of our humanity &tstr; brilliance in honoring life’s beauties and an urgency to help other human beings. He enables love every day of his life.”

“When I retired, I realized I’d never brought my two worlds together,” Larew said.

After retiring, he had the time to bridge that gap between his two worlds. He began that process by teaching a graduate course at Oregon State University on poetry and hunger. Larew recalls, “I couldn’t find much poetry that had been written about hunger &tstr; of the stomach.”

During a weeklong writing trip to Ireland, Larew studied and wrote poems about the Irish Potato Famine and what emerged from that experience. Those poems were the idea of an informal initiative he calls Poetry X Hunger, where he uses poetry to fight hunger.

“I believe poetry and the arts have a lot to contribute to preventing &tstr; even eliminating &tstr; hunger. Rarely did I see the arts included in hunger alleviation programs. But you can’t get to that ‘culture’ in agriculture without the arts. Poetry X Hunger encourages poets to write more about hunger,” he said.

Through his connections with USAID, he was able to bring his project to the attention of the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization. They agreed to underwrite the First Annual World Food Day Poetry Competition in 2018. Poetry X Hunger directed the competition and selected the winning poems from among the submissions from Washington, D.C. and seven other countries. The winning poems were showcased on the organization’s website.

Larew is building bridges between farmers, nations and poets. He is using his experiences with different cultures and people to continue to fight hunger across the globe and to encourage cultural expression, namely through poetry. The “bridging” retirement plan allows Larew to establish durable and valuable links between those fighting to end hunger around the world and those fighting to give a voice to the suffering and the joy of living.

“In retirement, in the time I have left, I really want to enjoy, Larew said. “I rely on the ‘grin quotient’ to measure my accomplishments now.”

This is one in a series of occasional articles on farmers and agriculturalists of an age when they undertake new chapters in their lives, once covered under the misnomer “retirement.” Each article looks at how one person has handled setting aside their work and career, and tackling life’s next chapter.

Posted in Life Lessons, Published articles | 2 Comments
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