Mentor program pairs enthusiasm with experience

Managing Editor

BRANDYWINE, Md. (May 26, 2015) — From their first date, Ross Margulies and Leah Puttkammer both shared a dream of running their own farm one day.
What neither had at the time, however, was a clear path to get there. Living in Washington D.C., neither Margulies, a public health attorney from Ohio, nor Puttkammer, a photographer from Oklahoma, grew up on farms or had farmland to raise crops.
Margulies had gardened in his small backyard in D.C., then got space in a community garden which ultimately led to starting Working Over Thyme, selling transplants grown in his basement in 2012.
“Something sort of clicked in me,” Marguilies said. “I started to spend more and more time doing this. We got really into the idea of producing healthy vegetables.”
Enter Maryland FarmLINK, a multi-function program through the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission that helps new farmers find land and their footing in farming.
The couple signed up on its property exchange and mentor matching program in hopes of finding land that was somewhat close to Washington D.C. and hadn’t had chemicals applied on it for at least a few years.
“We realized that we wanted to take the next step,” added Puttkammer. “We both loved doing this.”
It didn’t happen right away, but through the program, they were linked up with Yates Clagett, a Prince George’s County cattle grazier, who had a vacant tenant house he wanted to rent and a few small fields that had been basically fallow since his long passed days growing tobacco.
Last year, Puttkammer and Margulies grew vegetables on about an acre of land and sold it at a nearby farm store at P.A. Bowen Farmstead.
This year, they’ve added another half acre, grow about 90 varieties of vegetables under intense succession planting and began a weekly CSA program with about 45 members.
Clagett said he helped them get irrigation set up in the field and shares equipment but in general, “they’re pretty much on their own. They’re figuring it out.”
He added when he was transitioning from tobacco to cattle, there was a lot he didn’t know and getting a mentor through a program at the Maryland Graziers Network, which FarmLINK’s program is modeled after, was a big help.
“There’s nobody to take over some of these farms when the farmers now quit,” Clagett said. “These young people may be the ones who step up and do it.”
Marguiles said Clagett is more than just a landlord.
“Without the FarmLINK program, I’m really not sure where we would be, as finding our spot on Yates’ farm has really transformed our entire experience,” he said. “We couldn’t do this without the buy-in he has.”
Through FarmLINK’s Mentor Match program, Margulies and Puttkammer were paired up with Becky Seward, who operates Prickly Pear Produce in Charles County and has worked on other produce farms for the past 13 years.
Seward said she sees her mentor role as mainly helping them “not feel rudderless or aimless” as they gain more farming experience.
She was mentored by the farmers she worked for previously and still sees them as resources she can call on anytime.
“I’m there to present them with the options of what’s been done by other people,” Seward said. “I think the best thing is knowing that people have your back.”
Margules said without a good mentor like Seward a phone call or text message away, he and Puttkammer would be much farther behind where they are now.
“Having a personal resource to go to for difficult questions is invaluable,” he said. When we are in a jam, a quick call or text can often mean the difference between doing something the wrong way, thus costing us additional time and money, and doing it in a tried and true way, saving us that time and money.”
While mentoring is hardly a new concept in agriculture, more formal efforts like Maryland FarmLINK to draw young adults into farming has increased in recent years.
“A lot of them are coming into agriculture because of the local food movement,” said Greg Bowen, Maryland FarmLINK administrator.
And it’s not just about matching up farmers with similar operations, matching personalities is key.
“Ideologies don’t always make you a perfect match. It’s good to have different perspectives,” Margules said. “Essential is having and open mind.”
The Mentor Match program provides a year-long mentoring for new farmers with particular focus this year in vegetable and fruit production, wine grapes, agritourism and pasture-raised poultry and rabbits.
After potential “mentees” submit an application and meet the eligibility requirements, the program’s Mentor Team assigns them a mentor.
Both sides are required to visit each other’s farm at least once during the year, stay in contact with each other periodically and send progress reports to the Mentor Match Team.
Mentees are also required to complete a farm business plan before the year is out.  
“It’s a learning process on both sides,” he said.
Bowen said since the mentoring program started two years ago, there’s been plenty of interest by new farmers getting mentored but it’s not as simple as making an introduction and stepping aside.
“We had about 30 applications the first year. We could only match eight because a lot of the people weren’t ready yet,” Bowen said. “We want to see that they already have a plan in their head and an idea of what they want to do. We don’t want to waste a mentor’s time.”
As for Margulies and Puttkammer, what their farming future will look like is a frequent topic of discussion. One goal is to eventually buy some farmland of their own to continue their operation, building on the community they’ve started in their CSA.
“We definitely see our future in agriculture. We’re just not sure what that is yet,” Puttkammer said.