In the Chesapeake Bay, which includes Maryland, Delaware, Washington DC, Virginia, and West Virginia, there are more than 82,000 farms covering one quarter of the region, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture.
But to preserve that rich agriculture tradition and align it with the ideals of a progressive, 21st century food system, Dena Leibman, who serves as Executive Director of Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture), believes the next generation of farmers can’t succeed if they aren’t financially viable.
"My vision for the region is for there to be food flowing from farm to table in ways that is profitable to farmers, protects the land, and builds community," says Leibman. "From that, springs all else."
Future Harvest CASA, founded in 1999 and operating just outside Baltimore, is utilizing education and advocacy to build a local foodshed across four states and the nation's capital. And it is doing so while fully rejecting the notion that feeding one's neighbors and practicing environmental stewardship comes at the expense of profits.
More than 60 people have graduated from Future Harvest CASA's Beginner Farmer Training Program, with a cohort of 13 just completing it. Beginning in the winter with an intensive nine weeks of classroom work, students first gain a comprehensive understanding on how the region's agriculture industry is the largest source of nutrient, phosphorus, and sediment and thus, a major contributor to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Once the weather warms up in the spring, students are paired with a commercial farmer during the program's experiential education phase and spend at least one day a week in the field and a total of 200 hours. Before they graduate, all students are required to craft their own business plan.
To be considered for the program, applicants must have some farming experience, a commitment to conservation and environmental stewardship, and proof that they either lease or own land that they can farm on after graduating.
There is no tuition fee, and classes are held at night so participants can keep day jobs. Like many beginner farmer programs, there's a heavy representation of 20-somethings. But there's also a lot of what Leibman calls "second-career" farmers, older adults completing their first careers as engineers, chemists, academics, or in the military.
A recent survey found that 75 percent of program graduates are currently farming, with 74 percent farming full time and more than half farming on commercial farms. Young farmers, Leibman indicates, still struggle with access to resources including capital for tractors and trucks, and need more advanced training in marketing. Meanwhile, all graduates are grappling with how to endure the impacts of climate change, with cold, snowy winters and torrential rains having had an impact on the region in recent years, notes Leibman.
Balancing environmental sustainability and economics is also applicable to Future Harvest CASA's advocacy work. Staff persuaded the state of Maryland to implement a cost-share program that would help farmers convert their row crops (typically mono cultures) into pasture which is generally more environmentally friendly if ranchers consistently rotate animals on their land. There's a push to harmonize regulations within the five-state region so that farmers have an easier time selling their products across the state. They've also advocated for legislation that rewards farmers for donating fresh produce to local food banks and others working to close the food insecurity gap in the region.
"We believe in incentivizing behavior and not punishing it," says Leibman.
Future Harvest also hosts an annual Cultivate the Chesapeake Foodshed Conference each January, and that's when the Beginner Farmer Training Program formally kicks off. But it's not just a conference for farmers, as Leibman and her staff are equally inspired to build bridges between growers and concerned citizens from region's urban centers in Washington, DC and Baltimore.
"We want to connect producers and consumers," says Leibman who resides on a 100-acre goat and sheep farm in Maryland's Catoctin mountains. "We do so with the hope that consumers will learn more about both the challenges and value of local agriculture, and as always, we've got an eye on building markets for Chesapeake Bay farmers.
To learn more about Future Harvest CASA, please visit www.futureharvestcasa.org.