New farmers tell their stories
Agricultural commission’s program matches mentors with mentees
The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission recently launched Tomorrow’s Harvest, a new webpage that showcases stories about farmers in SMADC’s Mentor Match program. Eight mentee farmers of the inaugural program agreed to share their stories in hopes that their experiences will be useful to others just beginning the journey.
As the age of the average farmer continues to rise, programs like the Mentor Match are in place to keep farming alive in the region. High cost of land and necessary infrastructure to get started prevent many new farmers — especially young farmers — from being profitable.
During their time in the program, mentees work with an experienced mentor who agreed to help grow the next generation of farmers in the region. The mentee visits the mentor’s farm and vice versa. They are encouraged to call their mentor with questions, and mentors occasionally contact mentees to see how things are going.
“I was trying to find more experienced people so I don’t make the same mistakes, especially as I’m scaling up … That’s one of the reasons to have someone in your region versus the internet. The internet doesn’t ask you how you’re doing. It doesn’t empathize,” Emma Jagoz of Moon Valley Farm said of her experience with the Mentor Match. “I wanted to be in the program forever.”
Jackson Webb, who farms chickens at his Swamp Fox Farm in Valley Lee, said he’s had to learn about licenses, lawns and how chickens think.
After studying anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Webb got into food after an eye-opening summer in Africa.
“I hadn’t really asked questions about food before I went,” said Webb, who did a stint with AmeriCorps after graduating college in 2011. “Everyone was saying, ‘You’re going to have a hard time with their food and water.’ But the week I got back here, I thought I was going to keel over from our food.”
The Maryland FarmLINK Mentor Match Program introduced Webb and his father, Chuck Webb, last year to David Paulk, who runs Sassafras Creek Farm.
Besides running an organic vegetable farm, Paulk and his wife, Jennifer, also manage the California Farmers Market.
“He helped me make sure I had everything straight to come to market,” said Jackson Webb, who was overwhelmed at first by the paperwork and licenses required to sell meat directly to customers. Having the Paulks as mentors helped him realize he could go to market and make a successful business out of growing birds.
Generations ago, a parent or neighbor who lived on the adjacent farm could answer the questions of a new farmer. Today, the parent of a new farmer may not have farmed, the closest farm might be miles away — and a farmer with experience in a specific crop might be several counties away. A mentee can lean on someone with expert knowledge and wisdom, providing the new farmer with information that can prevent costly mistakes.
“It has been such a joy to learn about and work with our farm mentees. They exhibit a passion for growing food and a quiet resolve to make a difference in their communities. Through the Mentor Match Program, mentees learn about tricks of the trade from a farmer experienced in their line of work, while mentors get to see farming through new eyes. The matches often form great relationships where both parties learn something,” said Greg Bowen, former Maryland FarmLINK director at SMADC.
The beginning farmer stories are available online at smadc.com/NewFarmerStories. The next round of stories will be added in the fall.
The Mentor Match program is currently accepting applications for beginning farmers. Contact SMADC at info@marylandfarmlink. com or call 301-274-1922, ext. 1, to find out more.
Jackson Webb of Swamp Fox Farm in Valley Lee tells his story of starting a small chicken farm on the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development’s Tomorrow’s Harvest web series.