Maryland gets new group for young farmers

AFP Correspondent

MOUNT AIRY, Md. (Jan. 26, 2016) — Young farmers in Maryland have a lot more in common than age, and a local chapter of a national organization has formed to help bring them together.
The Maryland Young Farmer Coalition, a local chapter of the national organization by the same name, launched last month with a mixer event that drew nearly 40 to an on-farm brewery.
They spread the word about the new organization at the Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture conference this month, where the group hosted another gathering with Maryland Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer executive committee members.
“We attend a lot of these conferences and are always meeting a lot of young farmers,” said Priscilla Wentworth, a farmer in CASA’s Beginning Farmer Training Program and food programs coordinator for the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.
But, she said, she and other organizers of the local group found “young farmers weren’t plugged into a lot of the groups that were already existing.”
Meredith Epstein, a lecturer and advisor for sustainable agriculture and agricultural business management at the University of Maryland, got the idea to start a local chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition after hearing its leader speak at the CASA conference in 2015.
The national group advocates for policies that recognize farming as a public service, improving young farmers’ access to land, to student loan forgiveness programs and to federal grant funding for beginning farmers.
A bill the organization supports now would add farmers to a federal student loan forgiveness program after they make 10 years of on-time loan payments while working as full-time professionals in their fields.
The Maryland group, Epstein said, is so far interested in these topics, “but mostly they want to socialize.”
Epstein wants the group to be a common ground for farmers of all backgrounds and approaches.
There are other organizations focused on cattle ranchers or organic practices.
“We want to be inclusive and not have any dividing lines about practices,” she said. “If Sec. Vilsack calls for 100,000 new farmers, we need all of them.”
So far, the group is loosely comprised of farmers in their 20s and 30s. There is no membership process for now, though interested farmers can become dues-paying members of the national chapter while attending events organized locally.
Wentworth, who will organize events for the group, said she is planning two more mixers for the year and a handful of “crop mobs.”
The concept comes from the national organization and entails gathering at one farmer’s property to help with a big project, like rototilling and planting a large spring crop.
Wentworth said she’d also like to hear from young farmers about what they need from the group.
Many are graduating from the University of Maryland’s agricultural programs or beginning farmer training courses like the one offered by CASA — but then struggle to find the kind of ongoing education and idea-sharing this career requires.
“I think if you’re a young farmer at any level, beginning or advanced, I think being a part of this group would be beneficial,” she said.
Caroline Selle, 25, recently left her job as a journalist to farm full-time at Your Chef’s Table Farm, which is owned and operated by a personal chef.
Already, she’s leaning on the group for advice about navigating this new field, which doesn’t necessarily come with amenities like healthcare or a living wage.
“Beginning farming is really hard,” she said, “Even if you don’t [have to] own your land, it’s really hard to make a living without a multi-generational system behind you.”