Two decades ago, Jack Gurley had no idea how to start a farm.
“I have zero background in agriculture,” he said. “I didn’t even have a garden growing up.”
Now entering his eighteenth season as the co-owner of an organic fruit and vegetable farm in Sparks, Md., Gurley is an accomplished farmer serving four farmers markets and 60 Community Supported Agriculture groups.
He shared his story of success with students in the INAG205: Agricultural Enterprises course Thursday, February 23.
Gurley first took an interest in farming when he heard a report on National Public Radio about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). He had wanted to start a new business and tried gardening at his home. He enjoyed it so much, he said, that he reached an “epiphany.”
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he recalled thinking to himself, “and from this point on everything was in that direction.”
He rented five acres of land in Sparks, Md., just ten miles south of the Pennsylvania border, and started Calvert’s Gift Farm. He operates the farm debt-free and has maintained all of his farm records since the beginning.
Gurley decided to become an organic farmer because he wanted find “a niche in the marketplace.” The benefits abound, he asserted: when a friend estimated the value of growing corn and soybean instead, he learned that organic produce was more profitable.
“If you want to start farming these days, if you want to be a farmer, this is the only game in town,” Gurley said.
Gurley said that consumers “buy with their eyes” and prefer organic products that resemble food they find at a grocery store.
“People want to identify with their food,” he said, adding, “There’s something that a small farmer can offer that they can’t get anywhere else—that personal connection, and I think that’s just going to grow as time goes on.”
In addition to his farm operations, Gurley leads a new farmer training program. Through this program, Gurley expanded the community of organic farmers in the area. He communicates with his former trainees regularly, often picking up new skills and tricks from their agricultural ventures.
“You’ve got to do what you like,” he said. “[Organic farming] changes every single year—clean slate. What can I accomplish this year? This kind of farming is all about change, which I find invigorating.”
Laura Sanner, a second-year Institute of Applied Agriculture student studying Equine Business Management, was impressed with Gurley’s focus on advising students rather than promoting his farm.
“He explained really how to start a business, rather than talk about his own,” Sanner said.
Agricultural Enterprises instructor Ellen Polishuk first met Gurley at the Takoma Park Farmers Market where they both sold produce from their farms.
Polishuk says that Gurley’s humble beginnings, precise financial management, and impressive track record make him an outlier among organic farmers.
“He’s positive, he’s got a can-do attitude, and [he has] very specific suggestions about markets that are ripe and methods that are worth pursuing,” she said, adding, “He’s still got a perspective that can be applied to other enterprises.”
Gurley recently acquired 13 additional acres of land that he will use to expand production and improve crop rotation. He encourages beginning farmers to start small and learn not only in the classroom, but in the field.
“You never stop learning,” he said. “It’s amazing how much there is to know, how many different ways to do it. It just gets me up. It gets me out of bed in the morning.”