Beginning Farmer Success Interview Series
This series aims to spotlight and celebrate Maryland farmers and inspire and offer farmer-to-farmer tips and advice to our readers.
Last month Vanessa Lubiner invited the University of Maryland Extension Baltimore City to visit Talmar Horticultural Therapy Center in Baltimore County, where they works as the Farm's Sustainable Agriculture Instructor. TALMAR's Mission is to enhance health for people of all ages and abilities through horticulture. The Veterans Affairs Farming and Recovery Mental Health Services (VAFARMS) program provides sustainable agriculture training for military veterans seeking mental health treatment. Vanessa has been leading TALMAR VAFARMS program since 2021.
Farmer Profile: Vanessa Lubiner, Sustainable Agriculture Instructor & Farmer
When did you start farming?
I started farming "in a real way" in 2014 when I moved to Baltimore. I volunteered on farms in college and enjoyed it. I knew I wanted to get involved in Urban Agriculture and food justice, so I started volunteering on farms in Baltimore and worked as a farmer through AmeriCorps. After many jobs in farming and forest education, I started a full-time position as the Sustainable Agriculture Educator at TALMAR in 2021.
Tell us about TALMAR. Who are the farmers, and how long has it been in operation? What specific needs or problems are addressed?
TALMAR Horticultural Therapy Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization located in Cromwell Valley Park. The farm's goal is to make farming accessible for people who are usually excluded from the average farming landscape. Because we are a Horticulture Therapy Center with a farm, we value programs over production. In other words, production is in service to programs. VAFARMS is a compensated work therapy program, so our participants are directly involved in the everyday tasks of farming.TALMAR's occupational therapist runs nature programs for adults with autism, stroke survivors, and people with dementia and Alzheimers through a Memory Cafe program. The farm is ultimately cared for by all staff members and three farm management apprentices, who are experienced farm workers who seek more management experience.
We have a farm stand offering a variety of herbs, greens, and strawberries, and soon, we will have tomatoes. The farm stand is open weekdays from 4 pm to 6 pm, right here on the farm. Much of our food has been donated to local church food banks, the Gerofit VA program, and others. Our newest venture is bee hives. We are partnering with Mission Believe and Hank's Honey. The venture could be described as a fledgling social enterprise, and its intention is for veterans that have gone through our farming program to return and practice business skills. We are lucky to connect veterans with Mission Believe, which mentors veterans and first responders in beekeeping. It is a robust two-year mentorship program. We also started a mushroom growing operation this year for the same purpose.
What crops do you grow? How many acres/lots is the farm?
We grow mainly vegetables, lots of greens and herbs. Talmar has 10 acres, but we actively farm about two acres. Currently, we have about one acre in full production. We have five hoop houses, mushrooms, and six bee hives.
How do you deal with weeds? With insect pests?
We follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and organic practices, although we are not certified in either. We have implemented an integrated pest management system. We hand-pick weeds, remove pests by hand, and interplant flowers (such as marigolds) that deter pests. We use soapy water and peppermint or hot pepper essential oil on special occasions. We try to rotate our crops consistently, so we do not expose the same crop to the same location and, therefore, the same pests two years in a row. For dealing with weeds, we straw mulch our beds to suppress weeds and consistently add straw to keep the layer thickness. Otherwise, lots of hand weeding or coming through with a stirrup hoe. Weeds happen, and making the rows look picture perfect is not a priority. We also understand that some weeds attract pollinators and are important forage for our bees. We often leave white clover in the field, sometimes we leave rye cover crop with whatever new crops we plant. Otherwise, we will leave violet, deadnettle, and plantain (among others) at the edges. I really like dandelion and thistles plants, but because it spreads so easily, we try to pull those up by hand. It is a delicate balance.
What tools have had the most significant impact?
Literal Tools: Hand-held stirrup hoe. It scrapes the soil's surface to get weeds out without much disturbance, and you have more dexterity with a regular full-size stirrup hoe. I feel I am a hands-on farmer. I use minimal machinery. I am one of the few farmers that do not know how to drive a tracker. I tend to stick to hand tools. This approach may not suit some people, especially large-scale farmers, but it works for me.
Inspirational tools: I follow Leah Penniman, who wrote Farming While Black, and Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms, who was a keynote speaker at a Future Harvest CASA Conference. I also listen to many podcasts (such as anything in Stephen Satterfield's Whetstone Radio, For the Wild Podcast) and follow many farmers, organizations, and thinkers (such as a Growing Culture on Instagram or Planting Justice in Oakland). I also participate in classes with Herban Cura and discussion groups with the Jewish Farmer Network and others.
Why is this business model successful?
Our past Executive Director developed many relationships, and TALMAR's current Executive Director, Kate Joyce, is bringing our relationships, fundraising, and infrastructure to a new level. Horticulture therapy programming is not as popular as you think, even with all the research about the healing benefits of connecting with nature/tapping into our own nature. TALMAR is small but mighty because there are enough people to support the Mission. We have long-term partnerships. Teaming up with the Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health and Vocational Rehabilitation for VAFARMS has helped further develop TALMAR's therapeutic goals. TALMAR has existed since 1998 and has a long relationship with the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks' Office of Therapeutic Recreation and Cromwell Valley Park. The cross-pollination of these organizations with TALMAR has put us in a position to focus on building long-term infrastructure.
Looking back, can you share something you would have done differently as a farmer if you knew what you know now?
I would have spent more time and care to learn how to move my body efficiently and safely while farming. You spend a lot of time bending over, swatting, couching, lifting, getting up and down, and on your knees for hours. People don't talk about this very much. As farmers, there is a tough-it-up mentality. When running a business, sometimes you don't have time to think about your body. I think there could be a more common practice around taking the time to listen to and protect your body. I am only 30 and feel the effects of maladapted movement habits. I want to do this my whole life, so I have become conscious of my body while farming.
Do you have any advice for Beginning Farmers?
Baltimore is a great place to farm if someone is interested in learning. I have been farming in Baltimore for over eight years, and many people want to organize around agriculture. Try to carve out space to be still and present on the farm, so you don't lose sight of the incredible plants and ecosystems. Take the time to get to know the land. If farming in the city, be respectful and engaging with your neighbors.
In a work-related context, get your priorities organized while you're on the farm and in the field. Don't waste your time and energy on tasks that don't necessarily affect your outcome. Identify your priorities and organize from there. These priorities could be beautification, getting food to people, creating a long-term ecosystem, etc.
TALMAR is open to the public and is located at 1994 Cromwell Bridge Rd, Baltimore, MD 21234 - Located in Cromwell Valley Park