TILGHMAN — It is a surprise to find Quarter Acre Farm framed by a residential community on all sides. But sure enough it was a farm with orderly rows of tomato plants and a greenhouse chock full of seedlings. This little rectangle of organic farming is about two blocks away from Knapps Narrows Bridge.
The owner is Andrea Davis-Cetina. She is from Havre de Grace originally. She didn’t grow up farming.
“I went to Hampshire College and studied sustainable agriculture with a focus on local food systems. I really liked working with my hands. It all made sense and was a creative outlet. You can’t be a perfectionist and be a farmer. My first farming was a work study for college and I loved it. I graduated in 2005,” she said.
During the recession she got a restaurant job. They asked if she could create an edible garden for the restaurant. She built one and they loved it.
“In ’08 I got a chance to lease some land from farmer. I was like, ‘now I can be fully in control.’ So that is how I jumped into it,” she said.
Davis-Cetina has taken her efforts from California to Eastern Shore with a focus on certified organic farming. She moved to Tilghman in 2018.
“I started Quarter Acre Farm in California and got certified organic in 2010. Farmed California until 2018. Certified organic since 2019. It is land that is certified, not the operation. They look at the history of the land and the land itself. The Tilghman land is on a building lot and the owners just mowed it for 20 years. So I asked about growing on it. The land had been fallow with no synthetic inputs like pesticides and herbicides,” she said.
She is certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers. They certify farms in all 50 states and Canada. She says they certify lots of farms in Maryland. She said organic certification is a federal process run by the USDA. She could have gotten certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, but she loves the resources and customer service of CCOF. She said they are the largest certifier in the country.
Being certified takes land, but that is just the beginning. Leasing land isn’t that hard. Leasing organic certified land is harder. But finding that kind of land with available water takes an effort. Her parents live next door to her farm. She pulls water from her parents’ well.
“Water was the toughest thing to find to go with the land. She uses drip irrigation. I have baby tomatoes. Without irrigation they would have died in that two week dry spell,” Davis-Cetina said.
The distance between one farming operation and another can be just one gust of wind away from another. You need a buffer like trees that can act as a buffer for windblown contaminants and leeching water because their roots suck it up. She has dreams that include planting on more land.
Future Harvest — a Maryland-based group that assists new and sustainable farmers — helped her find the half-acre of land. She is now looking for a minimum of ten tillable acres. More work, but she would have employees.
Because organic farmers aren’t spraying everything to kill weeds and pests, they have to get creative in working with nature.
“I always do a bed or two of beneficials for the pollinators. Something to feed on. Habitat for good bugs. It is important to have balance. There are good bugs and bad bugs. You can’t get rid of all the bad bugs, so you are trying to bring lady bugs which are good, praying mantis are good. Assassin bugs are good. Aphids are bad, but they get eaten by the good guys,” she said.
The scope of her farm is in the 100s not the 1,000s. Like an accountant she has every plant counted. There are lots of vegetables that have proven lucrative at farmer’s markets. She keeps assiduous notes at the market. Every little string bean, every quart of cherry tomatoes is documented.
“We plant beds of peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos with green paper on the outside. We make salsa verde. 185 cherry tomatoes and 310 heirloom tomatoes. There are 50 tomatoes in a bed. The rest of the field will be this amount of tomatoes in about a month,” she said.
The farm sells produce at local farmers markets.
“This is half an acre. My husband doesn’t help out. No, no, no, he is a chef. He makes prepared foods — pico de gallo. They sell at the Easton Farmers Market. We have seedlings for sale this time of year. It’s my spring crop. Tomatoes, leeks, collards, peppers, zucchini and arugula flowers. Yellow onion. Grown in a fiber pot. All bio degradable. By next year and pot and the popsicle stick marker will be gone,” she said.
There are also some stereotypes that should be dissuaded. Davis-Cetina doesn’t work from sun up to sun down. She makes a livable wage. She is happy to do it.
“I am at the farm like five hours a day. Then of course there is market day, which is like all day. I don’t farm in the winter. January I don’t farm. I do computer work like taxes and do my crop rotation for next year. I do consulting too. A walk through and a plan and a good luck. Or I come out a few times a year to trouble shoot. And then I have had clients where I am checking in every week. Really holding their hands,” she said.
Davis-Cetina has also learned some lessons about farming.
“I think it is extremely important for businesses farming or otherwise to be financially sustainable. You can’t truly be a sustainable regenerative operation unless you know it is either a hobby or a business. I started out indoctrinated with ‘Farming isn’t a business, it is a lifestyle,’ which is totally the wrong way to think. If you think like that, you will have a really crappy lifestyle. You are a kind of martyr. You’re sacrificing yourself for the greater good. I do this to make money. That is why at this scale I do not have an employee. I am not doing enough in sales to be able to hire someone and pay them even part time. I have come to this through years of learning. I do workshops on business because I didn’t get much business training in the beginning. I was trying to grow plants, not look at P&L reports. I have done a lot of continuing ed to learn and hone the business. I go to farm and ag-based conferences and they always have business courses,” she said.
She really has a keen sense for the numbers.
“I can tell you exactly how many cherry tomatoes did we sell. Over the years I look at what am I selling and how much labor goes into that. It really helps to show this crop is making money and this crop is not making money. That is the reason I do the crops that I do. Organic totally is a viable option. If you look at the certified organic industry, it has grown 20%,” she said.
Kind of like downtowns thrive with a local arts scene, she contends the same is true of local farming doing well.
“Productive farms equal a vibrant economy. I love a good downtown. This is a very intricate part of a very vibrant community. There are a lot of farms that won’t follow organic practices or be certified organic if the the customers don’t ask for it. If the demand is there, it pops up. People like it, so we make it,’ she said.
As a farmer who works in the field every day, her consciousness is heightened for the people working in agriculture.
“I work in the farm. I don’t want to buy something that a farm worker has had to deal with pesticides. Pesticide and herbicide poisoning is a real thing and unfortunately very common. So one reason I buy organic is because I think about the working conditions that the farm workers were in. If I want to go out to my field I can pick something and pop it in my mouth. At a conventional operation you have to clean that stuff off. You have to watch what you touch,” she said.
During growing season she gets out in the community to sell her vegetables.
“We are really excited to be at the Easton Farmers Market every single Saturday. We will also be a part of the monthly Tilghman Market — that is the last Sunday of every month,” she said.