WASHINGTON – The day starts at 4 or 5 in the morning for Alison Putnam and Luke Howard, who check on 77 acres of organic produce, free-range chickens, turkeys and veal calves, and tend to other farm business as the sun rises.
Then they go to work.
Putnam works in an office in Queen Anne’s County. Howard works from a home office, but he routinely travels across the country for his job.
After the office work day is over, it’s back to the fields for the Centreville couple, who have a passion for farming, but a respect for paying the bills.
Like many small and organic farmers in the state, they cannot afford to quit their day jobs. But they are not about to give up the farming life.
“It’s a delicate tightrope that we both walk,” said Howard, who has to balance his job and his farm with taking his children to athletic events. “But the rewards for both of us I think are phenomenal. An evening at the farm picking vegetables is by far one of the most rewarding evenings anybody could spend with their wife and kids.”
Bruce Gardner, interim dean at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture, said the population of part-time farmers is growing. Many of them start out in other professions and come to farming for the outdoors lifestyle.
“They really feel like their heart is in farming, but it’s not generating enough money,” he said.
Bruce Mertz, executive director of Future Harvest/CASA, a sustainable agriculture non-profit, agreed that part-time farming is becoming a norm.
“A large majority of farmers have off-farm income, whether it’s driving a school bus or having a full-time job,” he said.
They include people like Thurmont resident Rick Hood, the chief operations officer at an electronics plant in Frederick who also grows organic produce on a 27-acre farm, and Ken Staver, who raises corn and soybeans, but works studying water quality at the University of Maryland.
In Frederick County, interest in starting small farms is so great that extension agent Terry Poole gives introductory classes. Each spring and fall he offers weekly two-hour sessions to about 35 students.
“The target audience is people that are essentially new or inexperienced in agriculture,” he said. “It’s the new blood . . . these are people that say have established other careers and now they’re essentially looking to follow a dream.”
Poole, who has developed teaching materials that are used across the country, said his primary advice for new farmers is to do their homework.
“They’ll get this idea that they want to raise something and they go ahead and do it and they have no market,” he said.
Poole suggests that new farmers raise niche products such as specialty vegetables or organic cattle.
With savvy marketing, Jack Gurley, said it is even possible to make a decent living off a small farm. Gurley farms a mere five acres of organic vegetables in Baltimore County, but neither he nor his wife work off their farm.
“Farming is 25 percent farming and 75 percent marketing and selling,” he said. “There’s a lot of farmers out there that can grow very excellent produce and very few that can sell it.”
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