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It was a day in mid-September. David and Jennifer Paulk of Park Hall paused from their morning work at their certified organic Sassafras Creek Farm in Leonardtown. Standing next to rows and rows of vegetable plants, they talked about what drew them into farming as a second career.

That morning, they and a couple of part-time workers were harvesting Swiss chard, sweet peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers and sweet potatoes. The farm, which the Paulks purchased in 2010, includes 83 acres, but the Paulks have a little less than three acres of that in production.

They make the most of that space, growing about 90 varieties of vegetables, small fruit and herbs.

The temperature was at that just-right, in-between summer and fall level. The sun was shining. There was a soft breeze. It was quiet and peaceful and green.

No fluorescent lights.

No computer screens.

No neckties, no high heels, no bosses.

It all made farming look pretty good.

The Paulks sell the majority of their produce directly to consumers at local farmers markets. The rest they sell to restaurants and stores in the region that are interested in locally grown fresh foods and/or unusual ingredients that the Paulks agree to grow for them. They have a long row of hot Espelette peppers, normally grown in the Basque region of France and Spain that a chef in Baltimore contracted Sassafras Farms to grow.

“It’s very rewarding,” Jennifer said of their business, which she works at in addition to a full-time job as an environmental scientist in support of the Navy. “The customers — they’re fabulous. They’re so supportive.”

David retired a few years ago after 26 years in the Navy, the last four years of which he was commuting to Annapolis for work as a program manager. It was a job that required long hours and included “a lot of stress.”

While many move into the contracting world as soon as they complete their military service, “that didn’t call to me,” he said.

Instead, he looked to the garden that he and Jennifer had established at every place they lived. It was a hobby that had become increasingly important to the couple. “The more stressful my job got, the bigger the garden got,” David said.

He and Jennifer tried their hand at selling some produce from their garden in Park Hall, where they currently live. They found a market immediately. They could see there is a demand for fresh produce in the area.

A large-scale operation was out of the question. Not only is property expensive, it is difficult to find in the area. So, the Paulks studied the idea of small-scale farming. After visiting small farms at different areas in the country where there is a burgeoning movement of small, sustainable farming businesses, they decided to take the plunge and invest in the property in Leonardtown that is now Sassafras Creek Farm.

“It is super exciting,” David said.

He said people ask, “Can I do that?”

“Yes, you can,” David said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard work. But, it’s achievable.”

Southern Maryland, a region that once was characterized by farmers and farms that were regularly passed down through the generations. Several things changed that — the tobacco buyout more than a dozen years ago caused some to give up farming altogether, and development pressures led to many family farms being carved up into housing developments. In addition, young people increasingly chose to look elsewhere for a career, not seeing a future in farming any longer.

That trend may be changing. People like the Paulks are giving a second look to farming as a way to make a living, particularly small-scale farming that doesn’t require a large inherited farm property.

And that’s a good thing, says Greg Bowen, Maryland FarmLINK director with the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. The region needs more farmers.

Several years ago, Bowen noted, people raised the alarm that farmers were getting older, and younger farmers weren’t replacing them. The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that the average age of a farmer in the United States was 57. “But in Southern Maryland, we believe that average age is even older,” Bowen said. And the census showed that the fastest-growing group of farm operators is those 65 and older.

And even if there are people interested in getting into farming, much that used to support that career path has been dismantled over the years — agriculture programs in the schools and Future Farmers of America clubs had lapsed and the once-large network of nearby farmers who could offer advice and assistance and share equipment had dwindled.

Gradually, a number of programs were established to assist new farmers, new programs that are trying to take the place of the support structure that used to exist.

Bowen’s program, Maryland FarmLINK, for instance, was set up to link up farmers who are retiring with young or new farmers looking for land, information and mentoring, “everything that beginning farmers need,” Bowen said.

Maryland FarmLINK received a funding boost last year, when several partnering agencies in Maryland won a $700,000 grant from the USDA, allowing Maryland FarmLINK to expand from just Southern Maryland farm properties to farm properties throughout the state. The grant also beefed up the mentoring program that the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission offers farmers.

The Beginner Farmer Training Program, offered by Future Harvest-CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture), is another program in the state designed to assist people trying to start a career in farming that benefitted from the grant. Now in its fifth year, the year-long program offers new farmers a training conference, classes and workshops and then seven months of working with a trainer farmer at the trainer’s farm.

David Paulk went through Future Harvest-CASA’s Beginner Farmer Training Program in 2011. At that time, the training was in Baltimore County and the trainer farmer he worked with, Jack Gurley, farmed in Sparks. Paulk traveled 100 miles once a week during that year to participate in the program.

“That kind of real world experience, you can’t do without,” Jennifer said.

David learned, among other things, “how to grow successive plantings,” he said. That knowledge allows the Paulks to harvest produce from April through December, making their business operation more viable.

“You can make a living in small-scale production,” David said. “The rule of thumb is you can make $25,000 or more per acre gross in a small-scale vegetable production.”

The USDA grant allowed the Beginner Farming Training Program to expand, said Cathy Tipper, Future Harvest director of training. In the five years that the program has existed, 25 people like David Paulk have completed the program. This year, it is accepting application for 11 new farmers slots, Tipper said.

And because farmers like David were willing to drive the length of the state to get trained, it will be easier for other Southern Maryland residents to receive this training, as the Paulks have been approved to be trainers themselves in 2014.

The USDA grant also funded the creation of a website which has been developed by the University of Maryland Extension Service. Ben Beale, extension educator in agricultural sciences with the extension office in Leonardtown, is serving as one of the project leaders for the USDA grant collaborative. Beale said the new website, which is at http://extension.umd.edu/newfarmer, is intended to be a “single place to go for basically everything [farmers] need to expand or launch a new farmer operation.”

“There’s lots of opportunities,” Beale said of farming in Southern Maryland.

Tipper agreed that farming has a future in the region. “We’re just seeing a lot more interest in buying local,” she said. “We’re not meeting demand ... It’s only going to get bigger, I think.”

Bowen said the challenges to getting into farming in Maryland are the capital equipment costs, the land costs and getting advice. Cost of farmland in Maryland, for instance, is three times the national average, Bowen said.

As far as capital equipment, David Paulk estimated that starting farmers would need to expect start-up costs should be a minimum of $15,000 for an acre or two.

But Bowen noted that people who want to farm in Maryland have a lot on their side. “We have a nice temperate climate ... We get average [annual] rainfall of 40 inches, and we have great access to an urban population,” he said. He said the Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Northern Virginia market is the fourth largest urban region in the country “and the wealthiest and the highest educated.”

The Paulks are benefitting from those assets. “The demand is huge,” Jennifer said. She said they can see that area consumers want a selection of diverse, fresh, local produce, meat and eggs, and they want it to be convenient to buy.

“We think direct sales to the public is the hot ticket right now,” David said.

scraton@somdnews.com



To learn more

For information on getting started in farming and resources that are available, visit the website developed by the University of Maryland Extension, http://extension.umd.edu/newfarmer.

The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission also provides a variety of resources for those in the agriculture business. For more, including information on Maryland FarmLINK, see www.smadc.com/farmRESOR/res_roundup.html or call 301-274-1922.

For more on the beginner farming training program offered by Future Harvest-CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture), see www.futureharvestcasa.org. Applications are now being accepted for the 2014 training program.

For more about Sassafras Creek Farm, see www.sassafrascreekfarm.com.