By night, Mark Mills is apastry chef at Washington’s Blue Duck Tavern. But being a fine hand with the icing spatula didn’t completely prepare him for his new day job: spreading compost with a shovel on his very own farm near Poolesville.
“I’ve spent my life in kitchens that are 130 degrees, and I’m used to being on my feet for 12 hours at a time, but there is no workout like farming,” Mills said recently, staring at the mountain of mulch he needed to move across his freshly plowed acre. The 46-year-old son of a Shakespeare scholar — drenched in sweat, already behind on his planting because of recent rains — had been a farmer for 26 days.
“Every day, I get up with a thousand things to do, but I love doing them,” said Mills, who hopes to have almost 500 tomato and pepper plants in the ground soon. “This was an opportunity I just had to seize, ready or not.”
Mills’s sudden shift backward in the food chain — from the strawberry tart to the strawberry seeds — came through a new Montgomery County effort to match wannabe farmers with unused farmland in the county’s vast Agricultural Reserve. Hoping to boost actual farming in the 93,000-acre zone, Montgomery officials set up a pilot program to find landowners willing to lease their fields to newbie planters.
Advocates of rural preservation say the effort marks a shift in the decades-long fight over whether to preserve farmland in a heavily suburbanized county. The question now is what to do with it, beyond simply admiring the pastoral views.
“We are trying to make sure we keep the ‘ag’ in the Ag Reserve,” said Steve Silverman, director of the county’s Department of Economic Development. “Usually it’s just talked about as open space, but it was originally created in 1980 to preserve agriculture in the county. We want that land to be productive.”
To that end, officials in the county, which still boasts more than 500 farms, set up the New Farmer Pilot Program to lower two of the barriers new farmers face: finding land and gaining experience.
With part of a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the program seeks interested landowners, provides expert training, finds a veteran farmer to mentor each participant, and pays for a limited supply of deer fencing, pumps and other start-up equipment. Mills’s load of Leafgro compost, for example, was delivered free from the county’s mulch facility near Dickerson.
Mills was one of 18 applicants who responded to the county’s so-you-want-to-be-a-farmer call-out last fall. After officials winnowed the proposals (a tilapia-farm scheme didn’t make the cut), he has become one of two participants to actually break ground. A third is finalizing her lease agreement, and a fourth is still finding it difficult to get the right land for his plan to raise kosher goats.
“It’s been like running a dating service between landowners and applicants,” said Sarah Miller, coordinator of the project. “It’s a personality thing: You’re going to have someone coming into your front yard, you really want to get along.”
Charles Littlefield found a good match with some property owners near Sugarloaf Mountain. In a few weeks of serious evening-and-weekend toil, he has added a surprising new item to his résuméas a longtime international-development consultant: persimmon farmer.
“I’ve gotten very good at digging,” said Littlefield, who has a wife and two young daughters at home in Rockville. “I’ve gotten used to getting up very early on Saturdays.”
The expert in democracy and governance has never worked on a farm. But he did grow up roaming the cherry groves of northern Michigan and has always loved the vibe of an orchard. Littlefield is not quitting his day job anytime soon, but with almost 60 trees in the ground and more planned for next year, he hopes to be more than a gentleman farmer.
“I’m not wealthy enough to do it as a hobby,” he said. “I’ve got to make some money.”
And he’s off to a good start, according to Tyler Butler, a scion of the Butler’s Orchard family who volunteered to mentor the budding fruit grower.
“He’s very gung-ho — it’s great,” said Butler, who helps run his family’s 300-acre farm near Germantown. “The main thing I’ve been preaching is patience.”
Last month, Littlefield nervously left his saplings behind when he made a 12-day trip to Africa. Fortunately, heavy rains kept things on his two acres nicely watered.
But such is farm life that the same rain that boosted Littlefield’s young orchard wreaked havoc on Mills’s unplanted field. The wet made it unplowable for so long that he’s had to give up plans for a first crop of beets and carrots. He’s now racing to get it ready for tomatoes and peppers.
“ ‘Welcome to farming,’ ” Mills said with a resigned laugh. “That’s what everyone says to me.”
Mills has signed a five-year lease, for $100 a month, for three acres off River Road. With help from friends from culinary school, he set up 40 poles for deer fencing. A local farmer is plowing his first field — as weather permits — for a cut-rate price. A county-provided water pump and several hundred feet of drip-irrigation tubing sit in a nearby shed, waiting for Mills to plow through a to-do list that includes spreading several tons of mulch one wheelbarrow at a time.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” said Mills, wiping sweat from his forehead and gazing at the vast expanse of newly turned soil spotted with the 12 tiny black piles of Leafgro he’d already moved. Then he looked back at the mountain of mulch still to go, which rose behind the blue Prius that he plans to exchange soon for a beater farm truck. “I may have to rent a tractor for the rest of this, though. I’m still working it all out.”
Deliverance came a few hours later when Delores Milmoe, owner of the 27-acre farm where Mills leases his plot, drove by and saw the size of the compost heap. By text, she offered him the use of a bucket loader.
“I saw that mountain, and I saw those little wheelbarrow piles and thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” said Milmoe, who has lived on the property since 1994 and grown small-scale flower and herb crops. “This is great, to see the field plowed and how hard Mark is working. This is why we moved to the Agricultural Reserve.”
Mills’s life change is no rash “Green Acres” fantasy. (He said his supportive wife is “a bombshell but not a Hungarian bombshell.”) Rather, the North Carolina-born chef and hard-core gardener had long wanted to get his hands into some serious acreage. He plans to grow table crops for locally sourcing restaurants and markets and perhaps launch a farm-fresh food truck or restaurant of his own.
Less than 30 miles from the White House (and down the road from a Buddhist temple), Mills’s farm is a good example of what rural preservationists see as Montgomery’s key strength: tracts of rolling fields on the edge of a sophisticated population center.
If the county can capitalize on such booming urban food trends as the “locavore,” organic and slow-food movements, it could help reverse the steady decline of farming in a booming region. Once a key employer, dairy, fruit and vegetable farms now employ fewer than 1,200, county officials say.
“We’re definitely seeing a resurgence of interest,” said Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance. Her group has established Landlink, a program meant to carry on the work of the pilot program by matching landowners with new farmers. “There are more people farming in Montgomery County now than there were four years ago,” she said. “I’ve never been more encouraged.”