Montgomery County officials hope a new program for fledgling farmers will grow a new crop of entrepreneurs.
County Executive Isiah Leggett unveiled on Monday an initiative known as the New Farmer Pilot Project, which would train and place farmers on private farms for five years or more.
“So that they can put down roots right here in Montgomery County,” Leggett said.
The program was funded through a $120,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration. There is also a training partnership with the University of Maryland Extension. Landowners and participants would negotiate how to pay for the land, county officials said.
About a third of the land in Montgomery County is designated for farming. Though the overall number of farms in Montgomery County has decreased — down 17 percent between 1982 and 2007 — the number of small farms has grown by 13 percent, according to data from the Department of Economic Development’s Agricultural Services Division.
Jeremy Criss, manager of the Agricultural Services Division, said there’s been particular growth in the number of farmers who grow what he called “table food,” the sort of produce you’d find at a farmer’s market or at a CSA.
“We want to produce more table food crops,” Criss told Patch.
Still, farming is a tough business to break into.
“One reason we're doing this is because for young farmers, it's challenging to buy land near the city,” said Delores Milmoe, who hopes to offer a 5 to 7 acres of her family’s 27-acre farm near Poolesville.
She estimated that the cost to lease land for commodity crops was about $75 an acre.
Even with the cost of leasing land and acquiring the expensive equipment, Wade Butler, who inherited from his parents, said that without mentors, people with no prior farming experience would miss out on the institutional knowledge that the farmer’s kids reap.
“I'm second generation,” Butler said. “My children are the third generation, so I've got young children who are in our business.“
Criss said the pilot project was similar to a recommendation made in 2010 by the county-assembled Green Economy task force, which suggested using county-owned land to mimic the county’s business incubator programs.
But the bad economy put such plans on hold.
“There just wasn't the money,” said Red Wiggler farm founder Woody Woodroof, who led the committee that helped shape the project. “This was a way to say OK, we're in challenging times, and we can still do something. “
Woodroof, who does not come from a farming background, founded in 1996. He said he could have used a mentor.
“I could have advanced much more quickly,” Woodroof said.
Steve Silverman, director of the Department of Economic Development, said the hope is that the program will give new farmers a stronger chance at success.
New farmers will be selected through an application process that continues through Sept. 4. More information is available at the Department of Economic Development website.