Set back on a quiet country road in Thurmont, on 33 acres of certified organic land, farmer Rick Hood has created a living classroom for aspiring farmers eager to learn the craft — and business — of farming. Hood founded Summer Creek Farm in 1992, bringing with him a strong set of business skills and a keen eye for detail acquired from his background in engineering and marketing.
“The only way farm land will stay in farming and out of development is to have farmers on the land making a living from it,” Hood says.
Now in its 24th season, Summer Creek Farm has evolved into a model of environmental and economic resilience that incorporates multiple enterprises: certified organic vegetables, forage, starter plants, a line of premium organic potting soils, organic fertilizers and other supplies for small farmers and gardeners alike. It’s an impressive, carefully built model and one that new farmers flock to the farm each year to learn about up close.
Each season, Hood trains a new group of aspiring farmers through the Beginner Farmer Training Program, a free, year-long program offered by Future Harvest — Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. The Beginner Farmer Training Program provides promising new farmers in the region with a one-year immersion in how to get a new farm started, one that’s both environmentally and financially sustainable. The program provides trainees with free access to Future Harvest CASA’s popular Cultivate the Chesapeake Foodshed conference; 10 weeks of classroom learning conducted in partnership with UMD Extension; grower-buyer meetings with chefs, distributors and other consumers; and a season of in-the-field learning by the side of experienced farmer trainers like Hood.
“The Beginner Farmer Training Program is an important step for a young person not from a farming background to get some real world experience. As trainers, we add valuable experience to the whole process,” says Hood.
Summer Creek Farm is one of 14 training farms that participate in the program. Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, which specializes in heritage breed livestock raised on pasture, is another.
A major goal of the program is to help build the next generation of farmers who can sustain and build upon the work of farmers like Hood, so that the county and region continue to reap the health and economic benefits that sustainable farms provide. It’s a big endeavor, and one that requires partnership and community buy-in to succeed.
One key community partner has been The Common Market co-op, a community-owned natural foods grocery store in Frederick. The co-op has committed to supporting local farmers, including Hood, with purchasing priorities that truly value local sourcing. In its effort to deepen its commitment to local sourcing, the co-op started its own small farm last year. Connor Self, an intelligent young farmer, runs the farm and is also enrolled in the BFTP, through which he trains one day a week at Summer Creek Farm with Hood.
“I think programs like the BFTP are vital to the beginning farmers in the county. There is a lot of interest in farming both from young people and people looking for a career and lifestyle change,” Self says. “Frederick County has some of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever seen and there is so much opportunity here for local agriculture. The full potential of the land here is not being realized partly because there aren’t enough farmers. But running any business, much less starting a farm business from scratch, is an extremely difficult undertaking and agricultural entrepreneurs need all the help they can get. For as much enthusiasm as there is in this area there is also a lot of burnout and failure and advice from people who have gone through these same problems before is the best solution I can think of.”
Another newer community partner is Community FARE, and its project, the Frederick Food Hub — Virtual Market Place. Their team is dedicated to helping new farm businesses find market opportunities. They have been identifying interested procurement managers, chefs and food business owners at super markets, restaurants, schools, universities, caterers and the many institutions in this region that currently source their food from afar. “We hope that by facilitating access to new markets beginning farmers will find Frederick County a great place to take root, and grow their farming operations,” says FFH project leader Janice Wiles.
The Beginner Farmer Training Program is a year-long commitment with built-in scheduling flexibility, which allows participants to maintain a job and/or start their own farm enterprise while completing the program. Participants not only learn about sustainable agriculture practices, but also the business of farming including cash flow and balancing market opportunities. If you are interested in applying for the program, becoming a training farm, or if you are a landowner looking to connect with a sustainable farmer, email firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the program can be found at https://www.futureharvestcasa.org/field-school/beginner-farmer-training-program.
Sarah Sohn is director of Future Harvest CASA’s Beginner Farmer Training Program. She also manages Young Sohn Gardens, a small vegetable and herb farm in Maryland that provides a gathering space for people with autism and their allies. She is a guest columnist invited by Community F.A.R.E. (Food-Advocacy-Resources-Education) in Frederick (email@example.com).