Beginning Farmer Success Interview Series
This series aim to spotlight and celebrate Maryland farmers to inspire and offer farmer-to-farmer tips and advice to our readers.
This month we are featuring a special guest, who is not a farmer but has dedicated his career to Maryland’s agriculture and natural resource conservation. Bill Tharpe is the Program Administrator for Urban Agriculture/Small Scale Farms for the Maryland Department of Agriculture and is currently developing a new program called Urban Agriculture and Small Farm Financial Assistance Program. This program is dedicated to small scale farmers in urban, peri-urban and rural areas.
Thank you for speaking with the Beginning Farmer Success Program about your career and this new and exciting program. Before we get into the details about the program, can you tell us a bit about your career?
I have worked in Conservation for 26 years. I started with the Harford Soil Conservation District office as an Agricultural Planner. I spent many years reviewing sediment and erosion control for development in Harford County and ten years as district manager for the same office. About three years ago, I transitioned to the Maryland Department of Agriculture to get a statewide perspective of what I was doing in Harford County. In January, I was asked to develop a program focused on urban agriculture and small-scale farms. With a long history of working with farmers in MD, I have not had the opportunity to get to know our state's urban and small-scale producers. They have been great to work with and very open and respective. I am enjoying working with them.
Tell us more about the Urban Agriculture and Small Farm Financial Assistance Program. How can farmers find out more?
There is nothing on our website yet because the program is still developing. We hope to launch a portion as early as Fall 2022. This program came about because urban and small-scale farms have not been eligible for financial assistance through most of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's traditional programs. These programs have been mainly focused on reducing sediment and nutrient runoff into our waterways from large commodity-based or livestock operations, including equine and produce.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture realized other operations were contributing to agriculture and were not provided with the same services. So at the end of the calendar year 2021, I was approached to develop a new program that focused on providing financial assistance for basically any agricultural operation in Maryland that does not meet our traditional program eligibility. Traditional programs include The Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS) Program, The Manure Transport Program, and our Cover Crop Program.
How does the Maryland Department of Agriculture define small-scale and urban farms for eligibility?
Ultimately we are focused on the production area, not the size of their property, but the actual area producing the agricultural product. So anything less than 10 acres, and if they have small-scale livestock operations, this can be anything less than eight animal units. An animal unit is 1000 lbs. of a specific species. This can be anything from six chickens to about six or seven steers or five to six horses. They will have to show that they have sold or donated at least $1000 of product. Between these items, farmers will have a good idea if they are eligible.
What types of items or services will the financial assistance support?
This area is still developing, but we are looking at a few paths for assistance. One is going to be associated with power and water infrastructure that was part of a bill passed in the house this past session. The assistance can go towards providing energy and water connection to mainlines, plumbing for irrigation, or power needed for operational equipment. We are looking at micro-grants that could help new farmers just getting started. Micro-grants could be used for raised bed construction, apiary items, or assistance with a nutrient management plan. We are considering a path for farmers with about five or more years of production experience and a clear vision moving forward. This path will have a higher dollar value. We are also trying to establish a small cover crop program. Financial assistance paths are not yet confirmed. As with any new program, as we learn more about farmers' needs, we will make adjustments to ensure we understand what works and what doesn't.
What is the goal or goals for this new program? And, have you started working with farmers?
We realize the economy to scale will be different from larger and more traditional operations, so we are in the development phase of learning what these operations need and how we will set up the program to provide financial assistance. We have not historically interacted much with small-scale and urban farmers, but we know their needs will be different. This year has been a lot of learning from and networking with urban and small-scale farmers and agencies and organizations already working with these operations: county economic development offices, local Extension agents, and Southern Maryland Agriculture Development Cooperation, to name a few. We are still actively developing this network to move forward with a program that farmers will want to use.
What I am trying to project through the program is not just a sediment and nutrient reduction benefit. We hope to get a reduction benefit, but we also want a socio-economic impact. Increase in the production area, increase in yield from better management practices while protecting our natural resources from runoff from urban to rural settings and everything in between.
Can small farms get involved now, or do they need to wait until the official launch?
We want to talk to farmers now. The next step is to put out a questionnaire to find out what size operations they have, location, hurdles they may experience, and if they even know about financial assistance. The biggest push right now is to get the questionnaire out to incorporate the live data into how we will structure the program. To be honest, I don't know many of these producers, so I am relying on the network to connect me to local producers in this category to get this information out.
How can farmers get involved?
My contact information will be associated with the questionnaire. Between Extension, economic development agencies, and other people I have been talking with, I am willing to come out and talk with farmers at town halls or other venues. I want to launch the questionnaire and get some of the data back first, so I know what people want to talk about and why. In the meantime, I would love to have candid conversations with producers about what they need and how we can support them.
Thank you, Bill, for giving our readers a pre-launch exclusive. It sounds like there is an opportunity for producers to join the network and contribute their voices to the program's development. You can reach Bill Tharpe at email@example.com.
Stay posted to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's website and the Beginning Farmers Success newsletter for the upcoming questionnaire.
6/27/2022; Interview with Bill Tharpe- Program Administrator: Maryland Department of Agriculture: Urban Agriculture/Small Scale Farms & Andrea Franchini - Extension Program Assistant: Agriculture and Food Systems.