Aging farmers face uncertain future -- Gazette.Net


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Chuck Fry’s voice is tinged with sadness when he talks about the future of his family’s farm.

“I’m worried, worried,” he said.

Fry, the Maryland Farm Bureau’s first vice president, runs a dairy farm in Tuscarora, Md., in southern Frederick County. Across the state, the average age of farmers is edging upward — and it’s even higher in Montgomery County.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census, the average age of farm operators in Maryland is 57.

It has reached 60 in Montgomery County, up from 57 in 2002.

“It’s hard to get that next generation to follow,” Fry said.

Farming at Metro’s Edge — a group assembled by local business owners, elected officials and agricultural stakeholders — held a conference in January about the future of agriculture in Montgomery and Frederick counties.

In the group’s subsequent report, released Sept. 16, farmers voiced their concerns about regulations, economic development and a lack of agriculture education for the general public.

That worry extends to aging farmers in Montgomery County, where some families and owners are looking toward uncertain futures.

“There is great concern over the sustainability of the agricultural economy,” the report stated. Attracting new individuals into the farming profession, and training them in ever-changing local, state and federal regulations, is a challenge, the report said.

“Typically, everyone thinks of agriculture as it was two or three years ago, as just a mom-and-pop operation,” said Laurie Adelhardt, spokeswoman for the Maryland Grain Producers Association. “It doesn’t lend itself to being as attractive a career.”

Wade Butler, farm manager at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, said Montgomery County poses its own challenges for new farmers looking to get into the business.

“It’s really tough in Montgomery County; land is expensive,” he said.

He runs his 300-acre farm with his sister and a core staff of about 20, which grows to over 100 during busier seasons.

Butler said farmers at smaller and midsize operations often rely on spouses to provide health care and income.

Fry admitted the work isn’t glamorous.

“You work long hours. Your pay scale is not what the government can pay nearby,” he said. “It’ll make you a poor man quick.”

According to the Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census, Montgomery County has 561 farms, totaling about 67,000 acres. The average size of a farm has decreased from 130 acres in 2002 to 121 acres in 2007.

But with high demand for community-supported agriculture, Butler said, there is an opportunity for new, part-time farmers to start their own small business.

The Farming at Metro’s Edge report notes the growing popularity of community-supported agriculture and farmers markets. With community-supported agriculture, customers pay for a share of a farm’s produce, which is then regularly delivered to a home or centrally located community facility. The county has 12 CSAs.

Brookeville resident Joan Riser and her husband, Gerald, run Avianmead Produce, a small CSA built from the large garden on their five-acre property. They grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, spinach and other produce.

“We’ve enjoyed it,” Riser said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of money, but it keeps us going.”

The Risers, both 75, are easing out of the produce business. After they started the CSA in 1996, they hit a peak of 25 customers, but only had 12 this year. They delivered their last order of the season on Sept. 26.

With her husband in poor health, Riser said they’re not sure how much longer they’ll continue to run the CSA. The couple’s children, who live in other states, are unlikely to take it on.

“They love coming out here, but they’re not interested in doing this kind of thing,” she said.

Montgomery County’s New Farmer Pilot Program, launched in August 2012, is experimenting with ways to support agricultural entrepreneurs who are new to the business. Similar to an incubator program, farmers start growing on a shared space for about three years, then find a site of their own.

But unless more young farmers get involved in the business, the average age will continue to increase.

Butler said his three children, in their late 20s and early 30s, are interested in continuing Butler’s Orchard.

But Fry said his children have moved away from agriculture. Though he has farmed all his life, he’s not sure who will take on the farm that has been passed down through his family since 1883.

“There comes a point where we get beyond 57 — we’re old farmers now,” Fry said. “I worry about our family, and our family’s history.”

scarignan@gazette.net