Pilot project links farmer hopefuls with landowners

AFP Correspondent

ROCKVILLE, Md. — When a taskforce focused on boosting the county’s “green” economy considered how it could help grow new farms here, its members made a simple recommendation: Start a farm incubator program.
Incubator programs — which typically provide short-term land access to beginning farmers following some sort of educational component — have become a increasingly popular method for training, equipping and launching new farmers across the country.
But when a consortium of agencies started implementing a plan for one in Montgomery County, it became clear that the new farmers would need more than incubation.
They would need more permanent access to farmland and longer-term leases to start building new businesses.
With the help of a $120,000 Small Business Administration grant and several farm agencies, the New Farmer Pilot Project began enrolling interested candidates in the fall.
The program’s main goal has been to connect ready-to-plant farmers with landowners in the county who are willing to enter longer-term leases lasting up to five years.
Sarah Miller, a consultant on the project, said connecting these two key groups of people has emerged as a cost-free role for the county to play as it tries to promote one of the greenest brands of small business — small farmers.
“In a lot of ways, the pilot is a fact-finding mission for the county,” Miller said. “It lets us go out and see the challenges preventing new farmers from starting businesses.”
After opening up the program to applicants in the fall, Miller said the platform remained flexible enough to respond to the group’s needs.
While the skills and experience of participants ranged from past farm managers to those just beginning to dream about running a farm, she said almost all of them expressed a desire for more business training and mentoring.
While only eight of the nearly 30 applicants met the criteria to continue with the full pilot program, organizers opened up the classroom training sessions, taking place over eight weeks in January and February, to all the applicants — and anyone else who wants to come.
A class on the first Tuesday in February drew some 35 people to the Agricultural History Farm Park in Derwood, where speakers and panel discussions during the weekly sessions have focused on everything from where to sell products to extending the growing season.
Participants range from 20-something-year-olds to retirees, and they’re looking to grow everything from farm-to-table ingredients to persimmons, while others hope to raise and butcher small-scale poultry or other livestock.
“They’re really trying to learn as much as possible and are ready to move into farming as quickly as possible,” said Chuck Schuster, educator with the University of Maryland Montgomery County Extension.
So far, the program has identified three or four landowners in the county who are ready and willing to lease to some of the participating farmers, who are mostly focused on growing vegetables for local markets.
Schuster said organizers have learned that many new farmers are interested in finding land closer to the metro areas, where the farmers markets and customers are located.
And the program has struggled so far to find property owners who are comfortable with leasing to livestock farmers, a venture that would be more difficult to oversee while living off-site.
Purchasing land, especially in a high-priced county like Montgomery, is typically not an option for beginning farmers.
The project is working to connect those farmers with people who own underused land in the county’s agricultural reserve.
Montgomery Countryside Alliance has a land link program that helps do just that.
“It’s putting the natural things together,” Schuster said.
The pilot program will help guide participating farmers through the growing season and into the fall, when organizers will reassess the needs of new farmers and how they can continue meeting them.