A training program for new farmers is teaching its biggest class yet

Violet King perched atop a bright blue Ford tractor at Clagett Farm, ready to take her first ride in the driver’s seat.

“We’ve got to give her some extra oomph right from the get-go, ’cause she’s gonna need it,” Carrie Vaughn instructed. Most tractors need to be started gently, she told King and a group of about 20 other fledgling farmers. But the old Ford was a different beast.

As Vaughn pointed to pedals and levers, King calmly repeated each step to put the tractor in motion. With a puff of black exhaust and cheers from the onlookers, the tractor rolled forward and King took it for a lap around a nearby barn.

King is one of 80 trainees — the largest class yet — in a program for burgeoning farmers run by the nonprofit Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Originally focused on mentorship, the 9-year-old program has expanded to three levels of coursework, attracting experienced farmers like King and newbies looking to trade their desk jobs for long days in the fields.

“Both our capacity and the demand for the program has grown,” said Sarah Sohn, the program’s director.

“Most of them have the goal of eventually farming full-time. By the end of the season, particularly in level one, some of those people have learned a little bit more about the reality of what farming entails.”

The Beginner Farmer Training Program was first launched in Baltimore County, spurred by a 2009 study that found the county’s agricultural land and number of farms were shrinking. The number of new farmers declined statewide from 2007 to 2012, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census data available.

But the training program aims to reverse that trend, and there are signs it’s working. Since its inception, the program has grown to reach students across the Mid-Atlantic, exposing the greenest trainees to the difficult realities of farming, and peeling back romantic imagery surrounding the lifestyle, which is often physically, mentally and financially taxing.

Steven Grant, 41, said he’s come to understand the hardships of farming while training on local farms this year. Grant is among the program’s level-one students — aspiring farmers just beginning to explore the career path. The former executive chef and general manager at Canton’s Cardinal Tavern is serving as an apprentice at two Baltimore County farms, and recently launched a catering business and farmstead. As Grant turns his Annapolis yard into a farmette, he hopes to narrow the gap between chefs and growers.

“I think sometimes that’s one of the big problems, that a lot of chefs don’t speak farmer and a lot of farmers don’t necessarily speak chef,” Grant said. “Learning how to speak farmer more fluently, I felt, would help me be a better advocate and a conduit between those two walks of life.”

So far, he’s planted his backyard with greens, beets, peppers and at least 20 varieties of tomatoes. Next year, he hopes to lease a few acres of farmland to expand production, growing niche ingredients for chefs looking to present eye-popping plates.

Other trainees see farming as an escape from the monotony of corporate offices.

“People are spending so much time inside at computers, it’s just that’s like the standard job now where you’re in front of a computer in an office building,” said Laura Beth Resnick, the owner of Butterbee Farm in Pikesville, who trains level-two students in 200 hours of farm work and business planning. “I can’t tell you how many times when I tell people I have a farm the response is like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so lucky. If I could have a farm I would.’ ”

Ryan Nielsen, a level-one trainee, took that leap. Nielsen recently quit his job as a labor union organizer and bought a 16-acre farm in Stewartstown, Pa. It’s the first growing season for Two Pitchforks Farm, where Nielsen and his husband, Michael Goldberg, are growing organic vegetables. They’re experimenting with different types of cucumbers, squash and peppers like Aleppo chilis.

Nielsen, 28, pointed to the farming community connections as a major benefit of the program.

“That doesn’t really exist for people who don’t come from a farming background,” he said.

Farmers he met though the program have helped him find local suppliers for necessities like potting soil and organic compost — a cheaper option than shipping compost from Vermont, which he was considering before.

“It’s not as easy as just like going to the internet and finding whatever stuff you need,” Nielsen said.

Like Nielsen, Tattiana Aqeel, 29, said the program’s network of farmers is invaluable — even though she’s not working on a farm right now. Since she completed level one last year, her passion for farming has taken a backseat to her love of music. She currently works as an event planner and musician, incorporating local farms in events she coordinates.

“For me it was just figuring out how to do both,” Aqeel said. “I never saw myself only being a farmer.”

And that network allows leaning to continue beyond the program. Even after a 200-hour internship, 2010 trainee Elisa Lane found there was plenty still to learn. She’s gone on to train other young farmers but continues to tap her own mentors for advice.

“I’m still in touch and pretty close with my trainers,” said Lane, who owns Two Boots Farm in Hampstead. “I can still go to them with my questions.”

She spends winters coaching level-three trainees — working farmers who want to take their skills up a notch — discussing the coming growing season, and plotting how they will stand out from other farms.

“There are tons of farms that are popping up right now,” Lane said. “You can’t just come in doing the same thing everybody else is doing.”

Although the small farm market is competitive and it takes time to turn a profit, the field remains accessible. Resnick started with a budget of $2,000, using shovels to work her one-thirteenth of an acre. Now with a tractor and a working budget, Butterbee Farm has grown to 3.5 acres.

“You don’t have to have a fancy tractor or like the nicest hoeing tools; you don’t have to have new stuff to make a farm work; and your farm doesn’t have to be perfectly weed-free to produce beautiful produce,” Resnick said. “You can start really small and with almost nothing.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

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