John Dove, 25, of Woodbine, and Amanda Smith, 27, of East Baltimore,… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
Amanda Smith had already earned a degree in art when she discovered she prefers soil to oils. John Dove is returning to his family's Woodbine farm with renewed enthusiasm for tilling the land. Karen Guinan has learned enough about viticulture to plant her farm's first grapes.
Smith, Dove, Guinan and three others are wrapping up an internship with the Baltimore County farmer trainee program, now in its second year. The interns, who receive a small stipend, have pursued seven months of hands-on experiences with a mentor farmer, participated in a series of workshops and toured several farms.
Baltimore County has 751 working farms with 78,200 acres in production. That acreage has increased by 10 percent in the past eight years, according to agricultural census figures. But the farm work force is aging, with many families finding that the next generation is not interested in staying on the farm. The internships may change that, said program director Cathy Tipper.
"If you are serious about farming as a career, you can't beat this for a free education," she said. "For us, it's about getting people starting with farming and providing them with resources."
Smith is aiming for a master's degree in agronomy and hoping for a farm of her own. Dove is looking to diversify his crops, and Guinan has found the ideal spot for a vineyard on her Frederick County farm.
"This program is a great walk-through with all the steps for running a farm as a business," said Smith, 27.
Dove, 25, grew up on a 200-acre farm, but by the time he went to Towson University, he could not wait to get away from the daily grind. Now, after receiving his degree and working for more than a year in environmental research, he can't wait to get back to farming. He is mulling over several innovations at Love Dove Farms.
"I had almost lost sight of farming, because I was always there," he said. "This program helped me to realize that there is a lot more you can do with a farm."
Guinan, 42, came to the program having worked at a 200-acre livestock and crop farm in Rocky Ridge. The internship gave her the practical experience and confidence to start a winery.
"I read a lot and watched others a lot, but I never really participated until this wonderful program," she said. "Now I am getting to learn, hands-on, exactly what I wanted to learn. I just participated in my first grape harvest."
The program has proved so successful that the county hopes to double the number of interns next year, Tipper said. She is looking for applicants serious about a career in agriculture. The ideal candidates would come with farm experience, but the program can provide that. Interns spend at least one day a week on a working farm.
Smith and Dove said they will likely be e-mailing their mentors, Jack and Becky Gurley, for the next decade for advice. The Gurleys, who run Calvert's Gift, an organic farm in Sparks, said they are self-taught farmers who can relate to the interns. Jack Gurley said the program might help fledgling farmers avoid mistakes like picking the wrong crops or planting at the wrong time of year.
"I had no farm background," said the former Baltimore resident who is now a certified organic farmer. "I didn't even have a backyard garden. But one year I planted one and had an epiphany. We started in organic farming long before it was cool. I wish this program had been around then."
The Gurleys earn their living from their five-acre farm and sell organic produce at several area farmers' markets. They established the state's first community-supported agriculture program in Maryland and supply dozens of customers with seasonal produce for 24 weeks of the year. About 75 potential customers are on a waiting list for that program.
"This farm was our vision," said Becky Gurley. "We are showing these kids that you can make it work."
On one recent day, the interns were harvesting crops for weekend markets. They reaped leafy greens, large radishes and winter squash, and would end the day planting next year's garlic. After hours in the field, Smith felt exhilarated, with her hair windblown and soil under her nails and covering her clothes.
"We are learning and getting constructive criticism from someone experienced in farming," she said. "They are showing us we can make a living at farming."
"Thanks in part to this program, a small community of young farmers is starting to blossom," said Smith, who sees hard work and a bright future ahead.
"After all," she said. "Food is something people will always need."
Dove added, "There is nothing better than sitting on a tractor, watching the sunset after a long day in the fields."