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Maryland farmer thriving after one year in agriculture

December 2023

Maura “Mac” Russell, 39, stands in the 1/3-acre plot she used to launch Ad Astra Farms in Bel Alton, Md., this year. She’s leased 3 additional acres for next season with the hope of growing her CSA and farmers’ market sales. She also donates 10% of her harvest. (Photo by Jonathan Cribbs)

by Jonathan Cribbs, The Delmarva Farmer

BEL ALTON, Md. — Maura Russell’s path to agriculture grew from a swelling disenchantment with her professional career. The 39-year-old began as an auditor at a federal defense agency hoping to improve fiscal management and accountability within government. Her career progressed, and a decade later, she ended up working with the same agency, this time as a consultant.

She encountered the same problems. Not much had changed.

“There are armies and armies of very smart people trying to help the federal government solve their financial (issues)… and it just kind of feels like we’re not getting anywhere,” the Fort Washington resident said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic offered many people an opportunity to pause and reassess their lives, Russell, known as “Mac”, began thinking more about local food production and her interest in feeding underprivileged communities. She found a group of like-minded people to learn from, and a year later, she’s a farmer with a CSA, expanding acreage and plans for the future.

“I feel like a lot of us have had that kind of — I don’t want to call it a crisis, but that kind of epiphany,” the owner of Ad Astra Farms said.

After linking up with the University of Maryland Extension’s Master Gardener program, she was referred to Eco City Farms, a nonprofit urban teaching farm in Prince George’s County. In January, she joined a 10-month program for beginning farmers, and in March, a cousin invited her to grow in Charles County where she launched a glorified garden on a third of an acre.

By the summer, she was growing produce, including peppers, squash, carrots and rainbow chard, behind Bel Alton’s renovated former post office and selling it at farmers’ markets and through her small CSA of six families. It went so well, she has signed a lease for an additional 3 acres next season. It’s a positive story, so far, she admits.

Her fellow classmates’ sailing hasn’t necessarily been as smooth.

“They’re also struggling with the same things that I am — struggling to find a place to grow; if they find a place to grow, they’re struggling to find the resources to get it ready to plant; and kind of struggling to find distribution,” she said.

Money, unsurprisingly, is an issue. In her search for funding, she’s noticed that while many grants exist for beginning farmers, most applicants need five to seven years of experience to be seriously considered or they’re cost-share programs that still keep desired equipment financially out of reach for tiny growers like her.

Kendra Ragland, 53, of Silver Spring went through the Eco City program with Russell and has run into similar obstacles. She works at a natural foods store and wants to start an herb farm. She’s searching for an affordable plot of farmland of less than 3 acres. Following a spate of recent rejections, she recently stopped applying for grants and fellowships to help cover the costs.

“I didn’t want to feel defeated anymore for the remainder of this year,” she said.

Without such assistance, Russell has improvised. Over the summer, she carted her harvest home where she washed the produce after sterilizing her kitchen and refrigerator. (She remembers her children expressing disappointment after discovering that a large array of vegetables had evicted their usual snacks.)

It’s a solution that’s unlikely to work for her expanded operation next year, so she’s searching for cold storage. Increased production will help her make a more “credible showing” at regional farmers’ markets.

“When people come to the farmers’ market they want to see that you’ve got this big, bountiful table of produce out for them to peruse,” she said.

Unable to use all the farmland, she’s also hoping to sublet to other farmers who want to launch their own operations or expand existing ones.

“Maura is many steps ahead of a good amount of us,” Ragland said. “She’s got this drive and professionalism. I feel like Maura is someone who’s going to be in farming administration and leadership down the road.”

In addition to raising her four children, she cares for her elderly mother and is recently divorced, so money is at a premium, she said. In June, she launched a GoFundMe page to pay for soil and water testing, soil inputs, seed, supplies and construction of a high-tunnel, but just $500 was donated toward her $5,000 goal.

The ultimate goal, however, is a career shift into full-time farming, which she acknowledges may be difficult in a region where the majority of farmers rely on off-farm income to sustain their operations. She doesn’t see herself as a supplier to local grocery stores but envisions something similar to her experience at Eco City — a farm that spreads agricultural knowledge, donates to local communities — particularly residents in so-called food deserts — and accepts payment from SNAP, formerly the federal food stamps program.

Her new agricultural commitments remind her of growing up in Kansas City when she was the sort of child who she thinks about feeding now as a farmer.

“I was the kid who took cheese and crackers because that’s all we had, or I was the kid who maybe had dry cereal but no milk, or maybe couldn’t afford the money for a school lunch sometimes,” she said. “I want to do my part to make sure that nobody has to deal with that.”

This article comes from The Delmarva Farmer, an agricultural newspaper for the mid-Atlantic region.