2021 | News

Farmers, landowners in Montgomery County have a matchmaker

Connections help agriculture newcomers find an affordable place to grow

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Tanya Doka-Spandhla grows gladiola flowers with pink, red, purple and orange hues through her business, Passion to Seed Gardening, northeast of Laytonsville.

Photo by Elia Griffin

Montgomery County has a linking program that connects farmers to landowners, giving both newcomers and more experienced farmers agricultural land to use.

The program, Land Link Montgomery, is run by Montgomery Countryside Alliance (MCA), a nonprofit. The organization has worked for more than 15 years to advocate for the preservation of countryside in the Montgomery County agricultural reserve.

Land Link, which has been likened to “speed dating” or “matchmaking” in how it connects people, has fostered a new generation of farmers to be stewards of Montgomery County land. The program has opened up opportunities for Black and Brown farmers in the county to begin their journey in farming.

“A number of refugees, many women, many people of color, are finding this program as a way to practice their passion for farming,” said Kristina Bostick, a senior conservation associate for MCA. “Often, they have deep experience from years in their home country. And what’s so wonderful is they are bringing crops that might be unfamiliar to us that are culturally appropriate for their communities.”

Land Link, which launched in 2011, is one of many farm-linking programs in the United States working to promote local food systems and small-scale farming.

One main hurdle for young and beginning farmers is not being able to afford to buy land. This is especially the case in Montgomery County. Bostick said the market forces that increase property value downcounty also increase property value upcounty, where there is more available farmland.

“As a farmer, you want to be planted close to that demand for your local food, demand for your product,” Bostick said. “But we’re finding that there’s just not a way for a small-scale farmer to afford to buy land.”

Bostick said that in the agricultural reserve, many non-farming landowners are sitting on large unused parcels. Land Link’s goal is to turn these plots into productive farms.

The agricultural reserve spans 93,000 acres in the northern and western part of the county. It was established in 1980 to protect farmland, agriculture and open space in the county

With Land Link, property owners and farmers can craft a long-term lease that is mutually beneficial and decide on fair rent.

In Montgomery County, monthly rent for agricultural or open land can range from $50 to $160 per acre, according to Caroline Taylor, the executive director at MCA.

This range is based on the type of land, and whether it is irrigated, fenced-in, grassy or shady. It is also based on what type of operation is best suited for the land, such as raising livestock, or growing commodity crops or table crops.

Although rare, there have been some “links” in which a farmer pays $1 in rent or no rent at all.

“And that’s for property owners who want to have some of the crops for their family, or they’re just so interested in hosting a new farmer that they are willing to do it gratis,” Taylor said.

To become a member, farmers and property owners send in an application and a one-time $30 fee. Afterward, a listing is posted to the website. Farmers and landowners can browse the database for a match.

All listings are posted anonymously and can be taken off the site or relisted at any time for no extra cost.

Those interested in a specific farmer or property listing can contact Land Link with the listing number. After that, it is up to the person who placed the listing to respond.

A problem that farmers and landowners have run into is the length of the matchmaking process. Some partnerships can take a couple of months to build, while others can take years.

Sometimes, the partnerships don’t work out.

For Tanya Doka-Spandhla of Passion to Seed Gardening, her first Land Link partnership failed when geese and deer wreaked havoc on her fields.

“Between the deer and the geese — when I put the corn in the ground, it wouldn’t even survive a day or two. They would pull it out before it even germinates. So that’s how bad this experience was,” said Doka-Spandhla, who now has farmed successfully on land northeast of Laytonsville for more than five years.

Jeremy Criss of the Montgomery County Office of Agriculture said Land Link “is a great tool and it has connected many interested farmers with interested landowners.” But one challenge he sees in the program is that a connection is not vetted.

Much of the matchmaking process is left in the hands of the two parties. This can lead to conflicting personalities or goals, confusion in the creation of the lease, and misunderstanding of motives, he said.

Criss recommends that anyone interested in Land Link spend time getting to know their potential partner and understand what their motives are. He said that while making money off property is a “worthy goal,” interested property owners should know that Land Link is not a way to make a lot of money.

“[Landowners] really have to have the desire that this is what they want to do with their property and they’re interested in local food production,” he said. “And they want to find the best farmer to make that goal become realized.”

So far, Land Link has made 26 successful matches, totaling more than 500 acres.

Taylor said the Montgomery Countryside Alliance and the Office of Agriculture are working to help new immigrant farmers.

“For me, it’s all about appreciation and gratefulness for having this opportunity in a foreign country,” said Doka-Spandhla, who is from Zimbabwe. “And the support that the county gives to its farmers in the county that’s very recommendable. … I believe, down the road, that they can now focus on especially minority women trying to move ahead in their different aspects of their businesses.”

Bethesda Beat spoke with farmers and property owners who have used Land Link. Read their stories here.