Organic Farmers, Sowing a Passion

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 10, 2008

After earning a degree in biology from Gettysburg College, Jack Gurley was working for an environmental consulting firm. Then one spring, as he was planting seeds at home, he had "one of those moments," and knew he was going to become an organic farmer.

That was more than a dozen years ago. Now he and his wife, Beckie, own a certified-organic farm, Calvert's Gift Farm, on five acres in Sparks, Md. They produce heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, garlic and more, and sell at three area farmers markets.

"Honestly, there are just not enough farmers out there," said Gurley, president of Future Harvest-CASA (which stands for Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture), a growers group focused on sustainable agriculture. "It's a great opportunity, but it's not easy."

Demand is rising for locally grown and organic produce, and interest in farming as a career is also growing. Young people with no experience in agriculture and people in their 50s who have gardened for decades are looking to turn farming into a living and a lifestyle.

Some romanticize the career, focusing on the beauty of the fruits or the joy of being in harmony with the land. They may not consider the bugs, hot weather, backbreaking work to pull weeds and harvest cucumbers -- not to mention the long hours and low initial wages. Unskilled workers start at $8 an hour in some farms outside the Beltway.

"Mother Nature is a tyrant," said Hiu Newcomb, co-owner of Potomac Vegetable Farms. Her two farm locations in Fairfax and Loudoun counties hire up to 10 people during the season, which runs from April to October or November.

Most organic farms have only a few employees, but counting larger farms and dairies, some 1.3 million people nationwide work as farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers. Most are self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the BLS expects fewer farmers by 2016, job prospects look good, especially in the organic area, as many farmers retire or quit.

"Anybody can learn to use a tractor, to use small tools," said Newcomb, who has farmed for some 40 years. What's more important is observing the soil, weather and growing cycles and understanding both organic growing techniques and business management. "A lot of it is learning what your land will do. It's an art as well as a trade," she said.

A common way to learn farming is to find a farmer who wants some help and will hire an intern or apprentice for a season.

"The best way to learn to farm is to apprentice yourself to the farmer. Then little by little, go more on your own," said Ray Weil, a University of Maryland professor of soil sciences. Some farm internships include work at a local farmers market, and others focus more on the farm labor -- planting seeds, pulling weeds and picking vegetables.

Newcomers may want to take a class or two in organic agriculture, sustainable farming, business or accounting. They also may want to move from one farm to another -- in succeeding years -- for broader experience.

"Be willing to put in the hours and the mindful work that it takes," Newcomb said.

Before you go too far, Gurley suggests identifying your goals and focus of farming. Do you want to raise vegetables or peaches or dairy cattle? Organic or conventional? And will you sell to consumers, to supermarkets or at your own farm stand?

He and Beckie started on property she had bought from her family, and now they sell at farmers markets in Takoma Park, Bel Air and Catonsville. "I grow it; she sells it," he said.

Organic farmers need to be close to the city or farmers market where they plan to sell, and yet may need to be 100 or more miles away to find affordable land, Weil said. "Buying land is a big problem, a trick," he said.

Would-be farmers should network to locate land, a mentor or employer. So go to farm shows, events and farmer group meetings -- and ask questions. County agricultural extension agents also can be helpful, Gurley said.

The main drawback to the career, Gurley said, is that it's impossible to take a summer vacation. But they go away in the fall and winter, to Costa Rica or France or skiing. And Gurley figures with almost no work November through February, farming is almost a 40-hour-a-week job. It's just that the hours are compressed into eight months.

Newcomb adds that farmers have no weekends. "They learn to balance their life or they will burn out. You have to have a sustainable life as well as doing sustainable agriculture."

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