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December 2012 | Volume 1, Issue 6  


 Boulder Improves Energy Efficiency in Rental Housing
 Grantee Spotlight: Canal Crossing — From Brownfields to Mixed-Use Community
 Innovative Partnership Funds Transit-Oriented Housing in Denver
 Pilot Program Promotes New Sustainable Farming in Montgomery County, Maryland

Pilot Program Promotes New Sustainable Farming in Montgomery County, Maryland

Montgomery County, Maryland, part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, blends a dense urban population, an abundance of rich agricultural land, and a well established network of farmers’ markets. These traits, and the community’s increasing demand for locally grown food, make it an ideal candidate for nurturing a vibrant, green economy. The county recently began a year-long initiative, the New Farmer Pilot Program, to give farmers starting new farm businesses access to land, mentorship, and business training. The pilot program also seeks to reduce the issues that new farm business owners may face in more conventional farm incubator programs.

Matching New Farm Businesses, Experienced Farmers, and Landowners

The idea for the New Farmer Pilot Program emerged after a task force of academics, nonprofits, and for-profit entities gathered in 2009 to discuss ways to improve Montgomery County’s green economy. One of the focus groups within the Green Economy Task Force specifically proposed the idea of a small farm incubator. With funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and assistance from University of Maryland Extension, the pilot program began accepting applications in August 2012, seeking candidates who had some farming experience but were new to owning a business. After reviewing applications and selecting participants, the county then matched these new business owners with experienced mentors and private landowners. Contracts between landowners and new farm businesses are expected to be finalized in mid-October 2012, and training will take place between October 2012 and February 2013.

A Sustainable Solution for Farmers and Montgomery County

The Green Economy Task Force identified several benefits of a program supporting small farmers. Local organic farms reduce the use and environmental impacts of pesticides and fossil fuels. On-farm sales and farmers’ markets allow farmers to keep more of consumers’ food dollars by eliminating transportation costs and retailer mark-ups. The task force’s report notes that Montgomery County has advantages that can support a small farm incubator: experience with incubators for other business sectors; nearby urban areas with an unmet demand for locally grown farm products; and the nationally recognized Agricultural Reserve, comprising 93,000 acres of agriculturally zoned land, three-quarters of which are permanently protected by easements.

In other farm incubator programs, new farm businesses use shared land for about three years. This short time period forces the new farmer to begin looking for a suitable permanent farm while trying to learn the business of farming. This search distracts the new farmer from the purpose of the program — learning essential skills in marketing, accounting, business planning, and sustainable farming practices. Participants in the New Farmer Pilot Program enter into long-term leases, preferably lasting at least five years, so that their businesses are established before they have to find a permanent location. These long-term leases also provide new farmers with an affordable alternative to purchasing property in Montgomery County, where land costs are high.

The program is also cost-effective for the county because it focuses on bringing together landowners, established farmers, and new farm businesses rather than on providing physical infrastructure. Although experienced mentors receive some compensation for participating in the program, the county does not need to dedicate extensive resources to the program; instead, the county serves as a facilitator, improving communication between farmers and landowners.

Moving Forward

At the end of the year-long period, the county will assess the pilot program. If the program is successful, the county will consider other initiatives to help sustain the area’s farming industry. According to Sarah Miller, a project consultant for Montgomery County’s Department of Economic Development, the county will consider actions that local government or private-sector entities can take to improve food aggregation and distribution in the region.

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