How to start farming: The story of Monnett Farms
One of the most common questions we get is How did you get into farming? and Did you grow up on a farm?
We moved to the farm in 2007, after we got married. We actually had our wedding reception in one of the barns and moved in that weekend.
The farm originally belonged to Benson’s great-grandparents, Dennis and Lois Monnett, who settled here amidst their extended families around 1920. Benson’s grandfather, Dennis Monnett Jr. grew tobacco, like most Southern Maryland farmers. The farm was mostly quiet after he retired. A local farmer leased a few fields, but it was almost like the farm was just waiting for us to return.
Benson had been involved in agriculture since he was a child. His parents have a small farm just down the road from Monnett Farms where they always kept a few cattle, sheep, and laying hens. There was a menagerie of other animals on the farm from ducks and geese to pigs and rabbits. Benson and his brothers participated in 4H as kids and kept livestock projects.
I, on the other hand, did not grow up on a farm or have any involvement in agriculture as a child. My friends and family joke about how a farm is the last place they ever thought I’d end up. But the farm has become one of the most cherished things to me and I don’t think that there could be a better place for us to raise our family.
START SMALL, GROW SLOWLY
One of the biggest advantages that Benson and I have is the actual farm itself. Access to land is the number one challenge for new and beginning farmers, especially in the Baltimore-Washington metro area where the land costs are so high.
We started small and grew slowly. We decided that we wanted to concentrate on livestock and that we wanted to be diversified. Benson also knew that he wanted to have a pasture-based operation, meaning we would raise animals on open pasture.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
First, we took over the cattle operation that Benson’s parents had going. We transitioned the cows to an all-grass diet, to market grass fed beef. Next, we added goats. Benson researched various breeds and selected Kiko goatsbecause they did well on pasture and forage diets and they were more resistant to parasites than other breeds.
Along the way, we added laying hens, pigs, sheep and dinner chickens. Each breed was carefully selected for how it would perform in a pasture based system.
GET INVOLVED IN AGRICULTURE
Perhaps the biggest asset for us has been our involvement in the Calvert County Young Farmers. Without this organization, it’s hard to say if we’d be where we are today. This group is full of members just like us, getting started or taking over family farms. We support each other, laugh at our mistakes, give advice and just have fun.
Other agriculture groups have been very helpful including our state and local Farm Bureau, the University of Maryland Extension, SMADC, and the newly formed START Farming Network. These organizations have introduced us to other farmers, offered education about farming, and generally helped us find our way. But none have become so much a part of our farm’s story as the young farmers have.
NEW FARMER’S CHECKLIST
If you want to get started in farming, the first step is to just get started. Here is a checklist of sorts:
Join a local farmer group.
In Maryland, contact your county Farm Bureau, ask about the young farmers group. The START Farming Network is another great organization started by SMADC (www.smadc.com), especially for farmers who may not be considered “young”. The group is open to farmers of all ages who are new to farming or transitioning to a new farming enterprise.
Read and research. Once you’ve decided what your interests in farming are, start reading and researching. Some of our favorite publications are Acres USA and The Stockman Grass Farmer, monthly publications devoted to eco-agriculture.
Look for a mentor.
There isn’t enough that can be said about learning by doing. Maryland Farm Link has a program that matches new farmers with veteran farmers in a mentorship program.
Most farmers will tell you that they do what they do because they are passionate about farming. If you have the will to farm, you’re already half way there.