Farming class helps rural ambitions take root

Extension agents teach basics of agriculture

April 01, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Most of them don't know a three-point hitch from a moldboard plow, but they're itching to get their hands in the dirt.

The class is Farming 101, and the students are chasing rural dreams.

"I love working with plants, I'm really into herbs, and I just love being outside, being self-sufficient and connecting with the earth," said Amy Jameson, 33, who's taking Introduction to Farming through the Anne Arundel County Cooperative Extension Office. A bird handler at Baltimore's National Aquarium, Jameson and some family members want to start an organic farm in Lothian.

"We have a dream: We want to be farmers," said Jameson, who lives in Glen Burnie. "I just want to learn as much as I can to get some ideas."

Her classmates include a jazz musician and his wife who want to grow raspberries, a Hanover couple hoping to buy land one day and a retired police officer and his horticulturist wife who moved to Abbottstown, Pa., to grow flowers.

Their teacher is David Myers, a cooperative extension agent in Anne Arundel County who grew up in urban Brooklyn Park, learned to farm from his father and grandfather, and ran the Naval Academy dairy farm in Gambrills (now Horizon Organic Dairy Farm).

"You've got people who have property or maybe recently purchased a little bit of land," Myers said of his students. "They've always been kind of tied to gardening or have a history of farming in their family, and now they've got the chance to do something, and I guess I'm trying to funnel that energy and show them, `OK, you can do some agriculture production even on a small scale.'

"Even a 5-acre farmette could provide a good business on the side."

Part-time farmers

Though Maryland's large farms have been declining over the past three decades, agriculture officials say more people are becoming part-time farmers, as a hobby or because full-time farming doesn't provide enough income. Extension agents in Frederick and Howard and some Eastern Shore counties also teach introductory farming courses.

"Generally, the person that comes in here already has a career and they're looking to have a place in the country, and they basically have had no farm experience," said Terry E. Poole, a Frederick County Cooperative Extension agent who developed classes for beginning farmers in 1996 after helping many of them informally. During the past five years, nearly 500 people have taken his classes in Frederick.

The courses cover the farm basics: soils, crop and livestock production, pasture management, marketing and recordkeeping. Poole said agriculture officials from 12 states have requested his lesson plans.

Some of his former students have started free-range chicken farms and commercial rabbit and goat operations. Others have gotten into more unusual crops, including white eggplant and bok choy.

With the state's minority population growing, Poole said, a large market might exist for diverse kinds of produce, offering many opportunities for small farmers.

In addition to practical farming information, Poole said, the classes provide beginning farmers with other educational opportunities.

"Not having grown up on a farm, they've not networked with other agricultural producers, where they can learn by talking to other people," he said. "So they've formed some groups where they can get together and talk."

Poole described his students as "an excellent audience."

"They're like sponges," he said. "They soak up everything I can teach them, and they want more."

That's what Jameson plans to do before making any big decisions about how to farm the 12 acres in Lothian that her sister and brother-in-law bought.

Within the year, Jameson and her husband hope to move to Lothian, and her long-term goal is to take up farming full time.

`I feel called'

"I'll be giving up a lot, a 401(k) and other benefits, but I feel called," said Jameson, who, as an aviculturist, works with birds at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "I feel it will be a smooth transition to chickens."

Myers' students listened attentively last week as he talked about farm machinery and maintenance, pesticide application and methods of tillage, or soil mixing.

"Farmers like to run machinery and take equipment to the field, but sometimes we're not being very economic about it," said Myers, who showed the class pictures of sprayers, plows and a fancy $280,000 combine.

"Who works on all these machines?" asked horticulturist Kathy Nugent, who with her husband Fred, a retired Prince George's County police officer, moved to an 8-acre Pennsylvania farm to raise flowers and vegetables.

"You, the farmers," answered Myers. "In the wintertime, that's what you do. It's really fun."

He didn't hesitate to share his own mishaps and hard-earned wisdom from his days on the farm.

"When I would use the combine, I'd get seasick and fall out of it," said Myers, who urged his class to "take breaks to overcome vertigo and general fatigue."

Cathy and Charlie Caster of Hanover have a horse and no land, but farming has always been in the back of their minds.

"We're looking for something else that might be enjoyable," said Charlie Caster, 48, manager of an auto parts store in Pasadena. His wife is a software systems manager with the state Department of Transportation.

"This makes you realize that you need to start small, and you need to start slow," said Cathy Caster. "It also makes us have more appreciation for farmers; it's not an easy job."

Nancy and Blake Cramer hope to grow a small crop of raspberries on land they own in Davidsonville. At times, Nancy Cramer said, she finds the class overwhelming.

"Sometimes it just goes totally over my head," said the 40-year-old stay-at-home mother, whose husband is a jazz musician. "You can read everything you want to, but it's trial-and-error, it's the smell of the earth and how it looks and feels," she said. "And you can't get knowledge until you're actually out there.

"I guess the worst that can happen is we'll get some berries for a pie, or a few jars of jam at the end of the summer."

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