Heritage ethnic crops, grants lead event agenda
CATONSVILLE, Md. — Calling the turnout “tremendous,” Keith Wills of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, the sponsor for this year’s Urban Farmers’ Winter Meeting, welcomed the 70-some attendees along with Neith Little, Urban Agriculture Extension educator with the University of Maryland Extension, and Mariya Strauss, executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore.
Both women represented the meeting’s organizers.
Held at the Great Kids Farm, a working farm and education center developed for the benefit of Baltimore City public school students, Strauss gave a brief overview of the location, which itself represented an urban agricultural oasis just off a major commercial route in the middle of suburbia.
She also noted how “we’re seeing a growth in the urban agriculture movement as evidenced by the great turnout,” which was later estimated to be half again as much as last year’s turnout.
Wills then introduced Steve McHenry, executive director for Maryland Agricultural and Resource Based Industry Development Corporation, which McHenry described as “a quasi-public entity with a focus on helping beginning farmers, and is more commonly known as MARBIDCO.” McHenry then briefly highlighted the Next Generation Farmland Acquisition Program, “a program for beginning farmers — those with less than 10 years of farming experience — to help them buy their first farm in exchange for putting the land in preservation.”
Currently, the program only covers farms of 50 or more acres; however, McHenry noted that a Small Acreage Program covering parcels between 10 and 49 acres is before the Maryland legislature. He and Wills ended by pointing out the table of financial assistance information they had brought — including stacks of a Farm Recordkeeping Book — and encouraged attendees to come speak to them during the meeting’s breaks or to contact them afterwards.
The meeting then moved to the first of the agenda’s main presentations on the benefits of growing African heritage and specialty crops.
Beginning with a demographic study showing considerable populations of African-born immigrants with both a good income and a desire to buy fresh foods from their home country, John Manirakiza, an urban farmer who has been working with Yao Afantchao, an ethnic crop development specialist at the University of the District of Columbia, discussed what those food crops are and which could be grown successfully by urban farmers in the region.
After his presentation, the bulk of the remaining program focused on agriculture grant programs available through first the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (Northeast SARE), and then the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Noting SARE has “a state coordinator for every land grant institution,” Nevin Dawson, University of Maryland’s sustainable agriculture coordinator, encouraged the attendees, particularly those who have been farming for three or more years, to consider applying for a grant. “SARE grants give you a contractual reason to pursue that lightbulb moment,” Dawson said.
And, even if your proposal is not funded in one year, “unawarded proposals receive detailed reviewer comments and you’re encouraged to try again,” he said.
Similar to SARE, “there is a soil conservation district and a NRCS field office in every county,” said Eric Hines, District Conservationist for Baltimore City as well as Baltimore and Carroll Counties.
With a mission “to improve, protect and conserve natural resources on private lands, Hines explained NRCS has been offering “financial assistance for the installation of Conservation Best management Practices since 1996” through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP.
As with the Northeast SARE grants, EQIP “is a competitive, reimbursement-based process,” said Hines. Unlike SARE though, “we have a rate for everything we do,” he said.
For instance, under EQIP’s most popular high tunnels initiative, NRCS will pay $3.25 per square foot with an annual cap at $7,500.00, which comes to about 2,700 square feet each year, given that EQIP projects are typically funded between 75 and 90 percent of cost.
That annual square footage can not only be subdivided, Hines said, as some urban farms don’t necessarily have the space to put a high tunnel with such a large footprint, but “farmers also can apply each year for additional tunnels” up to the annual cap.
Hines also pointed out that urban farms, particularly those farms located within Baltimore City and close-in suburban areas, often present some unique challenges.
To address such challenges, he encouraged attendees to establish “great relationships with both an agriculture Extension agent and more experienced farmers who have done this before.”
He also noted that overcoming the challenges presented by urban farms “is not just a Baltimore City concern, but is all up and down the Northeast.” Indeed, those challenges, he said, can be best explained by a quote from a Maryland farmer he once worked with: “Everything in the farming world is made for Iowa and the rest of us just have to adapt.”
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