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Leaving Day Jobs, Novices Dig Into Farming


Mark Mills quit his steady job as a pastry chef for the unsteady life of a farmer.

Making the decision took two things.

“Boundless enthusiasm, coupled with a little bit of ignorance,” Mills said.

Although the United States is one of the world’s leading agricultural powers, few Americans are farmers, just two percent of the population. In recent years, more small farms have popped up to serve the growing demand for locally produced food. Like Mills, the people running these ventures often have no experience in farming.

Mills majored in history in college and what he knows about producing food comes from gardening and 26 years working in restaurants.

So, why did he do it?

“Well, it’s beautiful. Why wouldn’t you want to come to work here?" he said. "I’m my own boss. But really, it’s my love of food.”

That love of food has become nearly a national obsession in recent years. Here’s one indicator: the number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the past decade.

Nuturing farmers

Federal, state and local governments see opportunities to create jobs and new businesses. Mills was one of four people in a new Montgomery County, Maryland, program helping novice farmers get started.

Sarah Miller with the Department of Economic Development says it worked better than they expected.

“Boy, we didn’t even know how many we would get," Mills said. "We thought maybe one or two would be great, but I don’t think that we expected four.”

The program provided a few essential things.

“They provided the connection with the landowner, so I could actually have the land to farm on, which is key," Mills said. "Then, certainly, they provided the financing for the deer fence and the irrigation, some basic things to get going.”

They connected him with a mentor: farming veteran Woody Woodroof.

“The big thing to work with him on now is season extension," Woodroof said, "helping him to do the things that will allow him to harvest crops deeper into the fall and early winter.”

Woodroof showed Mills how white netting keeps the frost off. Mills' first season has gone pretty well. He's harvested roughly 450 kilos of turnips, 90 kilos of carrots, 130 kilos of greens and more.

Financial challenges

The hardest part has not been growing the crops, he says. It’s been selling them.

“I won’t say that I broke even. It would be nice," Mills said. "I probably put five grand [thousand dollars] of my own money in. I’m probably going to walk away with four, four-and-a-half.”

Luckily, his wife’s non-farm job will keep them afloat financially for now. Experts say many new farmers need to support themselves with another source of income.

Despite the challenges, Mills has no regrets.

“If it’s really something you want to do, if the opportunity comes along you’ve got to take it,” he said.

Data on just how many other novice farmers are taking that opportunity will be detailed in a U.S. Department of Agriculture report early in 2014.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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