Turning to young farmers' challenges

On The Farm

October 23, 2005|By STACY KAPER | STACY KAPER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When he set his mind on farming, Brad Milton knew two things: He would have to find a market for what he produced before he sowed a single seed; and he would have to start small, gradually working his way up to being a full-time farmer.

That was when he was 13. Milton has come a long way from mowing lawns to finance his farming costs and riding his bike to deliver green beans and tomatoes to his Churchville neighbors.

At age 32, Milton is one of the most prolific fruit, vegetable and flower growers in Harford County and about 25 years younger than the average Maryland farmer.

But with dawn-to-dark hours, backbreaking labor and sometimes slim profits, few people younger than 45 are pursuing farming these days, especially those like Milton who are not from farming families, he said.

The Young Farmers Advisory Board, a governor-appointed task force of young farmers from various agriculture sectors around the state, met Wednesday in Annapolis to review the challenges facing young farmers and to look for ways to preserve agriculture in Maryland.

Some agriculture experts say they are worried about the future of agriculture because escalating land values in Maryland and extensive regulation are making it too difficult for young people to get into farming.

An August survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service found that the Northeast has the highest farm real estate values in the nation, because of "urban influences."

In Maryland, farm real estate values doubled in the last four years, from $3,800 per acre in 2001 to $7,900 per acre in 2005, the survey said.

"The farming community is aging - the average age is 57," said Keith Menchey, assistant policy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a member of the Young Farmers Advisory Board. "If it's going to survive, we need to foster young farmers."

According to the 2002 agricultural Census, less than 5 percent of Maryland farmers are younger than 35 and only 21.2 percent are younger than 45, said Norman Bennett, director of the USDA Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.

The Young Farmers Advisory Board will submit policy recommendations on improving conditions for young farmers to the state agriculture secretary's advisory committee, the Maryland Agricultural Commission, next month.

The recommendations will be presented to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in February.

"Land is a big issue. The value is so high," said advisory board chairman William "Billy" Boniface, a Darlington thoroughbred horse farmer. "It's difficult [for young farmers] to buy land when a farmer can get tenfold on selling to the developers that are breathing down their throats."

Land availability is the No. 1 issue for young farmers, agreed Bruce Gardner, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Maryland who has contributed to several studies on the future of Maryland agriculture. "The question is what to do about it," he said.

On a local level, Harford County Agriculture Director C. John Sullivan III said he would like to see the county provide grants and low-interest loans to young farmers to fund capital improvement projects on farms and to buy farmland.

Del. J.B. Jennings, who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, is a member of the Agricultural Stewardship Commission and is a part-time beef producer. At 31, he is also considered a young farmer.

"We're going to have to work on ways to get farmland for younger farmers," he said. "A low-interest loan is one thing, but usually the hard part is just getting a loan."

Zach Rose, 29, of Whitehall works full time on his family's beef and grain farm, which he plans to take over eventually with his brothers. If he wasn't from a farming family, Rose said, acquiring farmland would be a challenge.

"Without the help from another farmer making a good deal on land, I don't see how you could do it," he said.

The Young Farmers Advisory Board said its recommendations to the Agricultural Commission probably will include a proposal to assist young farmers in buying existing farmland by simultaneously protecting it in an agricultural land preservation program. The arrangement would give the farmer money back on the purchase in installments over 25 to 30 years for preserving the property as farmland.

A funding source still would need to be found. But such a plan could be supported by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation and the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp., said Stephen McHenry, interim executive director of the quasi-public corporation.

But land availability is not the only issue for young farmers.

To be successful, young farmers need an education to fall back on, experience, a well-researched business plan and the willingness to work grueling hours in all kinds of weather, Milton said.

"You have to start small and gain the respect of other farmers and landowners," he said. "You are not going to get a big loan, so you can't go into it big guns. ... You can't just be handing out money to people and expect people to make a business out of it."

Other recommendations will deal with education and outreach, repealing estate tax penalties that make it a financial burden for a family to pass on farmland through inheritance, and loosening commercial agriculture regulations for small farmers, according to the Young Farmers Advisory Board.

Young farmers also need a central place to get information on all aspects of farming, Boniface said.

"There's a whole other set of problems if you are born into a farming family," he said. "If it's a dairy family and the kid keeps milking cows the way his father milked cows for 30 years, he's not going to stay in business.

"The best way to save farming is to make it more profitable."

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