COLLEGE PARK – The University of Maryland Extension is hosting five farmer field school workshops, which will take place on farms across Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, to target and train urban farmers to develop the entrepreneurial side of their agricultural businesses and cover a variety of topics to help urban farmers reach the economic goals of their farm.
Urban agriculture is the practice of growing and distributing food in a heavily populated area for commercial purposes. Urban farming has been growing in popularity in recent years, providing the population with access to locally grown food.
“I think that the university is as much responding to a trend as they are setting an example,” said Margaret Morgan-Hubbard, CEO of Eco City Farms. “Many of the land grant institutions, especially in the Midwest, have been pretty responsive to urban farming, and to these needs. And so, I think we’re, in some ways, the University of Maryland is catching up to something that has become a demand of younger people and people who care about the food system.”
Funded by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) as a grant from the Northeast Extension Risk Management Education Center, these workshops will help promote different areas of risk management that allows for farmers to become more proactive insuring the success of their farms. These areas include production, human risk, financial risk, marketing risk and legal risk.
“So we’ll have five different urban farmer field schools this summer… on a variety of different topics,” said Neith Little, urban agriculture extension teacher. “Everything from… very production-orientated topics, like using drip irrigation, to very business-orientated topics like marketing what you sell and understanding the finances of your farm. But they’re going to be relatively hands-on.”
The criteria for these workshops were determined through focus groups hosted by UMD’s Extension program to collect data on the current needs and struggles of urban farmers in order to create necessary solutions for the group.
“We’ve been designing these workshops based on both our experience as extension educators and also based on the input that we got from urban farmers through a couple of focus groups this spring,” Little said. “And one of the things that they said was that some of the financial tools that they’ve seen have been not as relevant to the scale that they’re dealing with… so we’re trying to adapt and offer a financial tool that will be more relevant to the urban farmer scale.”
“Achieving economic viability is an urgent concern for urban farmers,” said Mariya Strauss, executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, a grassroots membership group of 16 urban farms in the city. “They face unique challenges such as having less land than rural farms do, and sometimes they struggle even to keep the little land they do have. The Urban Farmer Field School project will help them with business planning and other key pieces to support them in these unique struggles.”
One of these unique struggles includes a growing population of budding urban farmers who do not come from a lineage of agricultural workers. This creates a group that has had little to no previous experience dealing with commercial agriculture and leaves a lot of unexplored territory that can be detrimental to the profitability of their urban farm.
“We also have a lot of new budding farmers on the scene that they have not grown up farming, and so they need a whole different level of help than folks that have been doing it for a while,” said agricultural marketing specialist Kim Rush-Lynch. “So I think in terms of recognizing that urban agriculture is agriculture, recognizing that people are doing this for profit… at the end of the day, they need to make a profit.”
The first two classes in the series, which began on Aug.13 and 15, have covered various topics such as the use of drip irrigation in urban agriculture, and the importance of mental and physical health when farming. Other topics that will be covered later in the series includes marketing, business structure, and insurance. Workshops are typically three hours long with light refreshments and require an inexpensive investment of $10.
“We try to keep our programs as affordable as possible to make them accessible to everyone,” said Little. “This kind of education would not be possible, in particular, without support from a state legislature. That’s why we’re still here as a public service. It’s because Maryland state legislature has continued to support extension as a public education service.”