St. Mary’s farmer mulls growth after decade of success
LEONARDTOWN, Md. — David Paulk retired from the Navy nearly a decade ago with designs on agriculture.
A gardening hobbyist, he joined Future Harvest’s beginning farmer program, and in his 40s, began a vegetable farm in St. Mary’s County. Over nine seasons, he and his wife Jennifer built Sassafras Creek Farm into a Certified Organic operation with a small group of employees serving restaurants and other customers across the Washington region.
“I didn’t want to cycle back onto the base and put on a suit and tie,” he said. “I want to do something different. … It was a calling of some kind.”
It’s been an encouraging journey for the veteran, and Paulk said he’d like to continue expanding, but he’s reached a fork in the road. To grow, he’d need more employees, most likely through the federal H-2A program, and to be approved for that immigrant labor he’d need on-farm housing —- not cheap in St. Mary’s County, about 45 miles south of Washington, where building a home could cost around $250,000, he said.
“We’re still on the cusp of trying to figure out if that’s right for us. There’s a lot of financial barriers,” he said.
Paulk, who spent his 26-year military career managing airplane mechanics, is like a rising number of new farmers in Maryland: young farmers or those who jumped into agriculture as a second career and are learning on the job. His wife still works as an environmental scientist with the Navy, and he receives a military pension, but Sassafras Creek Farm reached profitability three years in. It’s an 80-acre operation with more than 40 tillable acres — most of which are under a constant cover crop — that grows a wide range of vegetables, grains and fruit year-round, helped by a series of high tunnels that allow the farm to produce during winter.
The Paulks sell at farmers markets, to restaurants and produce aggregators. Last week, they were proudly announcing the arrival of fresh strawberries, along with beets, rainbow chard, curly kale and others. Sassafras has supplied Opie Crooks, chef at A Rakes Progress, a Washington restaurant, for several years. Crooks said he appreciates Paulk’s ability to grow various specialty products, from specific strawberry varieties to mustard seed and oats.
“He’s a really incredible grower,” Crooks said. “Taste, appearance, nice varieties. He checks all the boxes.”
So, where does Sassafras Creek Farm go from here?
“I know I have the ability to grow some of these crops that I’m getting better at. I’m pretty sure there’s demand for them,” Paulk said. “And ultimately that always comes down to a decision that almost always comes down to labor.”
Labor is a difficult subject for many farmers, particularly those who grow fruit and produce. Producers across the country have lamented a labor shortage over the last several years that’s deepened since the Trump Administration began to crack down on immigration. A California Farm Bureau study released last month showed that farmers in that state are increasingly mechanizing farm operations to compensate for the lack of labor.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall called the industry’s labor system “broken” in February. He also advocated for granting flexibility in the H2-A program for growers who can’t construct housing, by allowing them to use a housing voucher for workers.
Paulk does the math, considering how a new housing mortgage would affect the farm’s bottom line.
“I’m going to have to generate $100,000 more, easy, just to make that work,” he said, likening it the crossing of an abyss. “That’s a big jump. I’m not sure I want to do that.”
He’d also need more cold storage to ramp up production, though there appears to be help on that front. Paulk, a member on the board of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, was enthusiastic about the commission’s vote this month to build a new regional agricultural center, including cold storage, in nearby Charlotte Hall. With that, he could double down on sweet potatoes, radishes and carrots — winter-hearty veggies that store well.
But instead of tackling the labor issue, Paulk said he’s focusing on the farm’s “low-hanging fruit” —things he can do to boost production without adding more bodies. He’s mechanizing, just like the farmers in California. He purchased a rinse conveyor in Pennsylvania that washes root crops. It cut the washing time of 1,000 pounds of sweet potatoes to an hour — about two-thirds less time than when it was done by hand, he said.
He also expanded the farm’s growing season. When he started the farm, he envisioned seasonal growing and pleasant winter vacations, he said, but he didn’t have seasonal employees to match that calendar. So, he added high tunnels and winter crops to keep his farmers employed.
“When you start telling employees, ‘Hey, it’s been a great season. I might have a little bit of work for you in January,’ they look at you, like, ‘Hey, I need work,’” Paulk said.
The farm continues to be profitable. He said he wasn’t naive to how much work a farm demands, but he appreciates control and was forced to adjust to a farmer’s lack of it.
“Not everything is going to be perfect,” he said “Not every crop’s going to be a home run. Not every day is going to be sunshine and butterflies.”
Sassafras Creek Farm can grow if it wants to, Paulk said. It’s a wonderful option for a young farm.
“The good news is, I believe demand is very strong,” he said. “The only question is, ‘How do I craft around that?’”
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