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Montgomery County initiative for young would-be farmers

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Kelly O’Neill wants to grow organic vegetables and raise livestock. But farmland is expensive in Montgomery County, and the 23-year-old said that can scare people away.

“There’s this fear of getting involved,” she said. Now the county is starting a pilot program to help them out.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) on Monday announced an initiative that will train young farmers and place them on privately owned land to grow sustainable crops and livestock for five years or more. County officials said they hope to approve five to 10 participants this winter and prepare them to farm in the spring.

Funded by a federal Small Business Administration grant, the New Farmer Pilot Project aims to help build small farms at a time when the county is struggling to preserve farming.

Montgomery’s agricultural economy has withered over the years. A third of usable county farmland — about 40,000 acres — has been developed over the past 30 years. Sales of crops and livestock have plummeted; adjusted to today’s dollars, they totaled $536 million in 1982 and $37 million in 2007.

But county officials said there are some good signs, too. The number of small farms has grown over the last three decades. And land easements preventing large redevelopment protect nearly all of the 77,726 remaining acres of county farmland.

Leggett said it has been challenging to get local young adults — even sons and daughters of long-time farm families — to work in local agriculture.

“You have younger people who are just not as interested,” said Leggett, as he grabbed a box of cherry tomatoes at a farm in Germantown.

The pilot program stems from a recommendation two years ago by a county-appointed “Green Economy” task force. At first, the county wanted to mimic a farming incubator program in Vermont that helped fund greenhouses and other agricultural buildings for young farmers. But Montgomery activists said the county couldn’t find money to build such facilities.

“When the economy tanked, people’s budgets did as well,” said Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

U.S. Rep Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) secured the $120,000 SBA grant to fund a smaller incubator program. County officials said they aren’t sure how they will use the money, but it may go to fund mentors who would train the young farmers and to buy farm equipment for them to share.

County officials said participants will forge agreements with landowners to decide how to pay for use of the land.

Dolores Milmoe is one of three landowners who have signed on. Milmoe, who owns a 27-acre farm in Poolesville, said details are being worked out, but she is interested in leasing up to 12 acres to three or four farmers and helping them with her own equipment.

O’Neill said she has about a year’s worth of farming experience and wants more. After graduating from American University last year, she worked for three months at an organic goat farm in France. Now an intern at another farm in Poolesville, she expects toapply to the program and hopes to get a few acres for herself soon.

Applications for the program are open until Sept. 4, said Steve Silverman, the county’s economic development director.

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