FREDERICK – On a recent Wednesday evening, 26 students filled a stuffy Frederick County conference room for a session on financial management.
It wasn’t high finance they were there to learn about — it was farm finance.
The students, ranging from women in their 20s to gray-haired couples, listened as farm management specialist Dale Johnson talked about record-keeping and marketing — another element of the farming business that can make or break a new farm.
Small farms are the fastest-growing segment of agriculture in Maryland, but many of the people who start them lack the business and farming experience they need to succeed.
That’s where classes like the one at the Frederick County agricultural extension center come in.
Frederick County extension agent Terry Poole has been offering such classes since 1996. They teach new farmers how to develop and operate small agricultural businesses, covering everything from crop production to pest management to marketing.
His students come from a variety of backgrounds. Some had horses as children or grew up on farms, while others have little experience with agriculture.
Many of the people who go into farming as second careers do so because they want to focus more on family than on other things, Poole said.
“Even more so now after 9/11, people are looking at these farms as a personal sanctuary kind of thing,” he said.
Because the farms are small, they need to produce something with a high value per acre. That tends to lead people to nontraditional enterprises, he said.
“There are some things that small farms can do that large farms can’t or won’t,” he said.
Small farmers are more likely to raise organic products. Previous students have gone into free-range chickens, oriental vegetables and rabbits, Poole said.
At the recent Frederick County meeting, Johnson told the would-be farmers that most small businesses fail at marketing. But, he said, marketing is very important for niche businesses because it produces a demand for the product.
That is something that emu farmer Diane Brown knows firsthand.
“It’s hard to get a new market going. It always is a challenge,” said Brown, who raises emus at Carlhaven Emu Farm in Highland.
She said she does not have the money to advertise and sells her birds’ meat by word of mouth.
Brown and her husband, David, a computer programmer, have seven week-old emu chicks that sleep in a plastic crate full of shredded newspaper in their living room. A dozen large blue-green eggs rest in an incubator in another corner of the room, while outside, some male emus are sitting on eggs in sheds, waiting for them to hatch.
Brown, a former teacher, went into farming in 1997 to keep her family’s land in agriculture for property tax purposes, she said. Her father had sold part of the land to the park next door, leaving a little over 24 acres. Brown needs 25 acres to get into Howard County’s land preservation program.
The Browns chose emus because they were easy to raise.
“Initially, we were looking at what would be the least amount of investment and the least amount of day-to-day maintenance because we aren’t farmers,” she said.
But she said if she were making the choice now she’d choose emus for their products: oil, meat, eggs and eggshells, and leather.
In several years, the Browns plan to have a hatching facility and to fence in the whole field for emu runs. To make a living at raising emus, they need to sell about 100 emus a year, she said. This year, they have 13 ready to sell.
That uncertainty is one of the first lesson of farm economics for people in Poole’s class. When one student asked how to market a crop before it was planted — much less harvested and processed — Johnson told them that that is “the hardest part of the business.”