Farmer wannabes warned

Toil: Course shows starry-eyed people how difficult life on the land can be.

November 11, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Wouldn't it be wonderful to live on a pleasant suburban farm -- crops waving in the breeze, sheep frolicking on sun-dappled grass and extra money coming in from the fruits of your labor?

Not surprisingly, hordes of eager beginners have just that vision in mind these days.

But when these avid amateurs show up for introductory farming classes in Howard County, the experts are dishing a more grimly realistic image: Bad weather. Bugs. Deer. Postponed vacations. Zoning regulations. Soil that doesn't cooperate. Customers who show up en masse when you don't have enough help and fail to show up when you do.

Seven of 10 people nationwide who try farming fail within five years, according to Maryland Department of Agriculture spokesman Tony Evans.

But the dream endures and "Farming 101" classes have popped up in counties across the state as people with little or no background in agriculture seek escape from the office. It's a testament to the pull of the work that Howard's monthlong series -- now in its second year -- attracted 20 people from across the Baltimore region.

When class begins, these aspiring growers and herders are subtly and not-so-subtly asked to think first -- before jumping in headfirst and wallet open -- about the full realities of rural work.

"There's some wonderful parts -- and there's some not-so-wonderful parts," said Caragh Fitzgerald, an educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension's Howard office.

"You do put yourself at risk financially," she recently warned nearly two dozen hopeful class participants.

The cautionary tone is not an attempt to drive away all comers as much as it is an appeal that people think with cool heads about a way of life long shrouded in feel-good mystique. So few people grow up on farms nowadays that the majority have little idea of what the work is like.

Taking call after call from people who just bought land and had no idea what to do next "really started getting to me," Fitzgerald said.

That's why Fitzgerald and her co-instructor, Ginger Myers of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, started the program: to introduce would-be workers of the earth to the challenges before spending thousands -- or hundreds of thousands -- of dollars on land, equipment, seed and animals.

For the past two weeks, class participants have been listening to the pleas for prudence, and to specific advice about how to sidestep common problems. Some are already doing a little farming, with or without land to their names. Others have never tried it and want to.

There's Terri Isabella, a Baltimorean who works as a human resources director and would love to board horses on the side. And Ellen Thompson of Hampstead, who moved from Howard because even a small farm can be super-expensive in the state's second-smallest county. And Cheryl and Wayne Harris, who live near Jefferson in Frederick County and care for 70 goats -- all on a neighbor's property.

On the first night of the course, every participant got a 3-inch binder (not full yet, but "they will be by the end of the class," Fitzgerald promised) and heard repeated requests to approach farming as they would approach any other business venture. Myers wants each person to write out a business plan and make the numbers work.

Myers cautioned participants against "red barn syndrome," the belief that one has to have a red barn -- and lots of other brand-new stuff -- in order to farm. She also would prefer that people not leap into agriculture just for the lifestyle, although she knows that some landowners do keep small farms as a hobby.

"They shouldn't lose you money," Myers said. "You should have a long-range plan."

Above all, start small, Fitzgerald said.

"Figure out what scale you figure you can manage -- and still scale it back," she said.

Marriottsville resident M. Linda Martinak, an administrator at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, took that advice after graduating from the course last year. She planted vegetables such as tomatoes and squash in a 25-foot-by-25-foot plot.

"It was a trial summer for me," she said.

She didn't make any money, but then she wasn't planning to just yet. Her big success: A fence, a plastic owl and some whirligigs kept the deer out of her garden, a triumph in deer-rich Howard County.

Marsha French, who took last year's class with her husband, Michael Bakalyar, can verify that what the instructors say about farming is true: "It is a lot of work and a lot of money," she said.

French started with one lamb not quite two years ago, a February baby she named Valentino. Now she has four. Along the way, despite her best efforts, two have died -- one from oak toxicity and one from copper poisoning -- and she has made frantic calls to shepherds, doctors and medical-supply companies to protect the rest.

"Farming is a heart-breaker," she said. "But it's wonderful at the same time -- it's just wonderful."

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