2021 | News

A new generation of farmers putting down roots in Montgomery County

Meet the faces of Land Link Montgomery

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Nia Nyamweya, left, and Susan Davis, center, discuss the farming operation over rows of squash, snap peas and tomatoes.

Photo by Elia Griffin

Beginner farmers, experienced green thumbs, owners of open land and environmental stewards have a place to connect and kickstart their agricultural journey with Land Link Montgomery.

Land Link is a program run by Montgomery Countryside Alliance that “links” farmers to property owners in the county. (Click here for a story looking more at the program.)

Bethesda Beat spoke with some farmers and landowners who have used Land Link. Here are their stories.

 

Beginner farmer

Nia Nyamweya of Silver Spring heard of Land Link while she was in a program that trains beginning farmers. She wanted to start gaining real farming experience. She contacted Susan Davis of Germantown after seeing her listing on the Land Link website.

Davis’ land is in the county’s agricultural reserve. She uses the majority of it for her sheep, ducks and chickens to graze and roam about. But there was land on a slope of a hill still unused.

Susan Davis, left, and Nia Nyamweya connected in November 2020 about starting a farm on Davis’ property in Germantown. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

Davis applied to Land Link and waited years for the right match. For a landowner, leasing land to a stranger comes with difficulties and hidden challenges. Differences in personalities and vision for the land can be obstacles.

She heard from many interested farmers, but to no avail. Some farm operations were too large or farmers simply did not like that her land was on a slope.

Davis, 66, thought the land was unusable until she connected with Nyamweya in the fall of 2020. Nyamweya, 27, saw the land’s potential and she was eager to start growing food in environmentally sustainable ways.

Davis said she also liked Nyamweya’s passion for growing food and helping communities and people in need.

“I’m a big believer in following your passions and [farming] is not mine. But it should be someone’s. Like, the land is here. … So, I was like, ‘Yes!’” said Davis, an acupuncturist. “I was so thrilled because her interest was in … serving the greater population.”

Nia Nyamweya, who grew up in Silver Spring, tends to rows of vegetables and flowers she planted in March. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

Nyamweya provides Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg with fresh produce for its farm to food bank program. Nyamweya said she has given more than 900 pounds of vegetables to Manna.

“Being able to come to a rural area and be outdoors and enjoy nature is a benefit of being here, but also for the inequities that were emphasized during the pandemic,” Nyamweya said. “It definitely feels relevant and timely to be providing food for community in the pandemic.”

On Nyamweya’s small stretch of land — a little less than an eighth of an acre — she grows tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, snap peas, beets, squash and eggplants.

Nyamweya, whose father is Kenyan, said she also loves to grow cultural heritage crops, such as a cabbage-like green called chinsaga, as well as kebarika beans.

On the land Nia Nyamweya farms, she is harvesting a variety of root vegetables, such as beets, carrots and radishes. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

“I love them in both exploring my own cultural heritage, but also sharing that with other people and learning about what crops and what dishes are part of people’s cultures,” she said. “Like, carrots are great. And what are certain varieties that are important to people? Beans are great. And what are certain varieties that people cherish in their food in their culture?”

For Nyamweya, being a steward of the land is of utmost importance. She uses sustainable farming practices that keep carbon in the soil while maintaining its health.

As the climate continues to warm, extreme weather events multiply and development stretches into untouched parts of the countryside, Nyamweya focuses on taking care of the environment and being a conscious farmer.

When she approaches her farm, Nyamweya thinks: “How can I be in the right relationship with the land and not see it as something to give, give, give? What can I really learn about farming crops, soil health, that’ll best serve how to grow crops well, and how to maintain soil health?”

Deep-rooted passion

Tucked away on a side road northeast of Laytonsville is Tanya Doka-Spandhla’s farm called Passion to Seed Gardening. For this farmer from Zimbabwe, her plot of land is like a second home.

During the week, Doka-Spandhla works as an engineer for a global aerospace, defense and security company. On weekends, she slips on boots and heads to the greenhouse and fenced-in plot to tame the weeds, make compost, and harvest vegetables and flowers.

Tanya Doka-Spandhla stands in front of rows of corn at Passion to Seed Gardening, near Laytonsville. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

On the land — which she secured through Land Link in 2015 — Doka-Spandhla grows corn, Swiss chard, mustard greens, tomatoes, okra, potatoes and pumpkin leaves. If the weather permits, she also grows kiwano, or horned melon, a fruit native to central and southern Africa.

She takes great pride in growing certified naturally grown produce and calls the growing plants and vegetables her “babies.”

“When I’m taking out the weeds, if it’s a day when there is a little bit of breeze, you see the plants dancing around. After I pull out the weeds, I say, ‘Look at my babies. They were being suffocated!’” she said with a laugh.

In 1995, Doka-Spandhla, 56, moved to the United States with her husband and two young sons. She immediately felt the need to start growing her own produce and deeply missed the flavors from back home.

The greenhouse at Passion to Seed Gardening is typically used in the winter to grow tomatoes and Swiss chard. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

“I yearned for the taste, [the] original taste of produce that I had experienced back in Zimbabwe. I always had it on my mind to grow food [and] to have a small garden plot,” she said.

Doka-Spandhla started with a small plot at a community garden in Germantown. She used gardening and farming skills she learned from her mother and grandparents.

At that small community garden, Doka-Spandhla realized her passion for watching a seedling grow into a bountiful harvest and sharing that with others. She also realized that she wanted to expand her operation, so she connected with Land Link.

But, not every link is a perfect match.

The first plot of land that Doka-Spandhla was linked to was in Olney, but that venture failed when geese and deer wreaked havoc. They ate the seeds she planted before they germinated.

The flags of Zimbabwe and the United States on the door of Tanya Doka-Spandhla’s greenhouse. (Photo by Elia Griffin)

Doka-Spandhla tried again. Eventually, she was linked to a plot on the 282 acres of Edgehill Farm and “Passion to Seed Gardening” was born.

Edgehill farm has a deep history tied to the 18th and 19th centuries. It was built by Henry Griffith II, one of the largest landowners in Maryland history, and the land has been passed down in the family for more than 150 years. Descendants of the Griffiths still live on and own the property.

Enslaved people also worked the land at Edgehill Farm. In 2019, John B. King Jr., a former education secretary under President Barack Obama, visited Edgehill Farm after discovering he was a descendant of enslaved people owned by the Griffiths.

While the history of slavery on the land is grim, Doka-Spandhla said it also gives her work more meaning.

“For me, it really brings [it] full circle, being originally from Africa — the African continent — and coming to a place … where descendants from the African continent used to be working, on this land,” she said. “It gives me so much peace, meaning and I just feel very connected to the land.”

Like Nyamweya, Doka-Spandhla found a deeper purpose through a partnership with Manna Food Center’s farm to food bank program. She said that this year, she has supplied the food center with more than 100 pounds of Swiss chard.

“For me, it’s a game changer,” she said. “I feel more energized doing it and knowing that this is my sweat that I’m putting in, but it’s going to help somebody in need.”

Farmer seeking land

Mezmur Beyene, a structural engineer from Bethesda, connected with Land Link in September 2020. He needed about 1 acre of land to grow vegetables and fruits from his native Ethiopia.

Beyene, 47, grew up in Akaki, a rural city outside Addis Ababa, the capital.

In Akaki, sheep and chicken roamed his backyard. He sold vegetables and food from his family farm at the local market.

In 2011, Beyene came to the United States and settled in Rockville with his wife and two daughters. His elder daughter attends college in Massachusetts and his younger daughter is a rising freshman at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Beyene said he left Ethiopia to move his family away from political and religious repression in his country.

His family was lucky to have a large, expanding Ethiopian community to cushion their landing into the United States. But that did not guarantee that Montgomery County would have the food and produce he missed from back home.

He especially missed Ethiopian cabbage and a citrus fruit that is a hybrid of a lemon and orange, and the fragrant grasses used during religious holidays.

By growing culturally relevant produce for his family and the surrounding Ethiopian community, Beyene hopes to fill in the gaps of Ethiopian markets.

“Mainly, I have to [share] it with the community. … Community means two communities. One is the neighborhood around the farm area and even my neighborhood. The other one is for [the] Ethiopian community,” Beyene said in a Zoom interview.

One of Beyene’s main interests is to produce berbere, a hot spice blend that is a signature flavor in Ethiopian cuisine.

Beyene is still looking for land with Land Link to begin his farming journey.

New lease on life

In March, Yul Shin, a federal employee with a beekeeping hobby, began his Land Link venture. Shin was seeking a local farmer to grow flowers and vegetables to accompany the beehives on the property that surround his home.

Linda Farley’s golden-yellow zinnias — grown in Darnestown — attract a yellow butterfly. (Photo from Linda Farley)

The majority of Shin’s property in Darnestown is grassy meadow. The untouched landscape was uninspiring and left him eager to do more with the land.

“I was sitting on, what, 6 acres of grass, and I mean, it’s nice, but it doesn’t do anybody any good,” Shin said. “You know, it’s just all green and grass and it didn’t appeal to me, and I just wanted some color and be able to make use of the land of, you know, to make it something functional.”

Shin applied to Land Link and began the quest for a good match.

“You want to find the right fit. You just don’t want to get anyone who’s just interested because farming, it’s a long-term endeavor,” he said.

Shin knew that he did not want someone looking to raise livestock. Instead, he sought out a farmer experienced in growing flowers and vegetables and who could tend to the farm on weekdays while he was at work.

It took Shin about a year to find the right match — farmer Linda Farley of Kensington. Other inquiries didn’t work out because of the long commute time, personalities that didn’t click or the land wasn’t the right fit.

For Farley, the beauty of the land and surrounding nature inspire the flower arrangements that she sells at the Brookmont Farm Market.

Linda Farley’s partner, Russel Davidson, who helps with the growing operation, stands next to tall sunflowers. (Photo from Linda Farley)

“When I visit the farm in Darnestown in the morning, especially, it’s filled with indigo buntings, hummingbirds, field sparrows, swallows, goldfinches, and thousands of butterflies and bees of many species,” Farley wrote in an email.

Farley’s original idea was to start a native plant nursery. But it can take years to collect wild seeds and tree cuttings, she wrote.

Right now, Farley grows dahlias, zinnias, sunflowers and cosmos on a little less than an acre of Shin’s property.

She hopes to earn enough money selling her flowers to buy native plants.

Separately, Shin owns 1724 Apiary Farm, a culmination of his beekeeping hobby mixed with Farley’s flower business. He named his farm after the address of the first house he flipped. Shin said that flipping houses was the side gig that helped fund the start of the farm.

Shin and Farley are a couple of months into their first year growing, but they have big ideas. They hope to continue expanding the flower and vegetable plots. They also want to plant about 50 fruit trees and perennials.

The plan is for migrating birds, native bees, butterflies and moths to use the trees as a nectar source and host plant.

Linda Farley sells arrangements of her zinnias, dahlias, cosmos and sunflowers at the Brookmont Farm Market on Thursdays. (Photo from Linda Farley)

“The plants I grow could help restore dwindling habitat for our birds and pollinators,” Farley wrote.

For Shin, his dream was to own a large swath of land and make it functional. His wife’s family in Korea grows hundreds of acres of persimmons, a fruit, and he was inspired by their connection to the land.

Land Link was the helping hand that allowed him to fulfill that dream.