How to start homesteading in Maryland


Cresting the northern portion of our nation’s capital, the state of Maryland is perhaps better known for its delicious crabs and Navy connections than it is for agriculture. Still, agriculture is the largest commercial industry in Maryland, and it is the largest single land use in the state. 

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For such a small state, Maryland is a diverse and robust place to start farming and homesteading. The state nickname is “Little America” because it contains almost every kind of natural feature in and around its state lines. The state takes great pride in preserving its natural and agricultural land and works hard to include farmers in the process.

Here’s what else you need to know about how to start homesteading Maryland.

Buying farmland in Maryland

According to 2019 data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average cost of farm real estate in Maryland was $8,060 per acre, compared to the national average of $3,160 that same year. According to the USDA’s 2018 State Agriculture Overview, Maryland has 2.0 million acres of farmland and 12,400 farms. The average farm size is 161 acres.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

In 1977, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation was one of the first of its kind first created in the United States and has since become one of the nation’s leaders in agricultural land preservation.

The foundation purchases agricultural preservation easements that forever restrict development on prime farmland and woodland and has permanently preserved land in each of Maryland’s 23 counties. As of 2018, the foundation has purchased easements on a cumulative total of 2,302 properties, permanently preserving about 312,787 acres.

If a farmer sells their easement to the foundation, the property owner will continue to own and operate the farm as before. Landowners may sell or transfer the property, but the land will be permanently preserved for agricultural use. The original seller of the easement retains limited development rights.

State law requires all agricultural operations to comply with the water appropriation permitting process, including traditional forms of agriculture, livestock and poultry operations, nursery operations and aquaculture.

Any person constructing a plant, building, or structure withdrawing an annual daily average of 10,000 gallons per day or more for agricultural activities from either surface water or groundwater is required to obtain approval for a permit. An agricultural producer must submit a permit application, project map, and explanation of the proposed water use. 

Growing crops in Maryland

The USDA hardiness zones in Maryland range from 5b in the far western regions of the state to 8a in the southernmost tip of the state. USDA zones 6a and 6b cover much of the northern part of Maryland, including Hagerstown and parts of Baltimore, but zones 7a and 7b cover nearly the entire state of Maryland, with average low temperatures between 0 and 10 degrees. Maryland’s farmland is primarily located in the north-central part of the state and the upper eastern shore. 

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Crops grown in the state of Maryland include corn, soybeans, barley, winter wheat and hay. Fruits and vegetables grown commercially in Maryland include tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce, peaches, plums, potatoes, melons, apples, berries, beans and pumpkins.

The cut flower industry is also a growing area of production in Maryland. 

Maryland farmers are big on using conservation practices that build healthy soils and protect water quality. The National Soil Institute’s 2019 soil health ​census​ report rated Maryland farmers first among the states in the percent of available cropland pl​anted to cover crops and second in the use of no-till practices.​ Maryland’s Healthy Soils Program was established in 2017, which directs the Maryland Department of Agriculture to provide incentives including research, education and technical assistance that contribute to healthy soils including farmer education. 

Maryland’s state soil, Sassafras, was one of the first soil series in the early days of soil survey activities in the country. Soils in the Sassafras series comprise nearly 500,000 acres of Maryland. The Sassafras series consists of deep, well-drained, somewhat permeable soils formed in sandy marine and old alluvial sediments of Maryland’s Coastal Plain. These soils are categorized as prime farmland and they are among the most productive soils in the state for agriculture.

Raising animals in Maryland

In Maryland, any person who keeps or cares for chickens must register with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. A person must also register other kinds of poultry, including ducks, geese and turkeys. Counties and cities regulate the number of chickens that a person can raise on a specific piece of property, as well as the size of the lot or  the distance of the hen house or coop from neighbors. 

Maryland fence laws state that the owner or occupant of an enclosure who finds a stray livestock trespassing on the enclosure may impound the animal if the owner of the animal is known. If the animal has caused damage, the individual who impounded the animal may have the damage valued, and notify the owner of the amount of the damage. After giving notice, the individual who impounded the animal may sell the animal at public auction to the highest bidder for cash unless the damage and a reasonable compensation for feeding the animal while impounded are paid or tendered. This law does not apply in Caroline County, Dorchester County, Garrett County, Montgomery County or Prince George’s County.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture requires that imported livestock are accompanied by an official certificate of health is a legible certificate issued and approved by the chief animal health official of the state of origin or the USDA and prepared by an accredited veterinarian.

Maryland’s Wholesome Meat Act regulates the licensing of slaughtering establishments, labeling of meat, and the state’s humane slaughter provisions. The humane slaughter provisions state that it is the policy of the State to prevent inhumane methods of livestock slaughter at an official establishment. Humane methods include those by which livestock are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot, or by an electrical, chemical, or other rapid and effective means. Use of a manually operated hammer, sledge, or poleax during a slaughtering operation is considered inhumane. Poultry and other fowl are excluded from the law. 

Four States Livestock Sales in Hagerstown is one of the primary livestock auctions in the state. There are also various stockyards throughout the state that sell livestock.

Selling food in Maryland

There are 124 farmers markets listed on the Maryland Farmers Market Directory website.

In Maryland, no license is required to sell fresh, whole, raw fruits and vegetables. Increasingly, farmers may be required by institutional, retail and wholesale buyers to be USDA Good Agricultural Practices-certified. 

When it comes to salad greens, no license or inspection is required if the product is labeled “wash before eating” and is a whole leaf or plant product, or if seeds are mixed at planting rather than leaves mixed after harvest.  A license and inspection is required if leaves are mixed after harvest; the product is cut up or chopped; or the product is labeled “ready to eat.”

The FDA and USDA food safety regulations apply to processed foods, including minimally processed fruits and vegetables (like cut melon, peeled squash and husked corn), jams, salsa, sauces, dried fruits, dried herbs, teas, cider, blended salad greens, condiments and spreads, canned or frozen food. The Maryland Department of Health licenses processors of fruits and vegetables.

A cottage food business or a home-based business is a business that produces or packages cottage food products in a residential kitchen whose revenues do not exceed $25,000 annually. Cottage food businesses are permitted to produce non-potentially hazardous baked goods, such as cookies, breads, pastries pies without potentially hazardous toppings or fillings; high-acid fruit jams, preserves and jellies; certain fruit butters; hard candy; and whole roasted coffee beans. 

​All cottage food must be prepackaged at the cottage food business and labeled with the name and address of the business where the food is made; the name, ingredients, and net weight or volume of the product; allergen information as specified by federal labeling requirements;; nutritional information if any nutritional information claim is made about product; and a clear printed statement: “Made by a cottage food business that is not subject to Maryland food safety regulations.”

Cottage food products can be sold in the State directly to a consumer from a residence, at a farmer’s market, at a public event, by personal delivery, or by mail delivery. Cottage food product sales outside of Maryland are prohibited. 

By law, the owner of a cottage food business may sell only cottage food products stored on the premises of the business without needing a food license. If other non-cottage items or potentially-hazardous items are sold in conjunction, a food license is then required for retail and storage. 

​Cottage foods may be sampled as long as your product meets the requirements of the Cottage Food guidance document and is a non-potentially hazardous food. Samples must be pre-packaged in the home kitchen.

By law, cottage food businesses must comply with all applicable county and municipal laws and ordinances regulating the preparation, processing, storage, and sale of cottage food products.

All producers and packers of shell eggs must register with the Maryland Department of Agriculture annually. Premises are subject to random testing by the department to monitor for salmonella of public health concern. Cartons of eggs are required to be labeled with the grade; size; FDA required safe handling statement; the packer or distributor name and address; lot number (should identify the flock – if you only have one flock “Lot 1″ is acceptable); the number of the packer; quantity or net weight of the eggs and the identity of the product as eggs. The information on the label has font size specifications as well to be sure they can be read clearly. 

Maryland strongly discourages the reuse of cartons, as it can cause contamination. Clean cartons that are reused must bear the correct information, and all other markings must be obliterated.

All eggs must meet the standards for the grade and size for which they are labeled. Grade AA and Grade A are the only consumer grades permitted to be sold in Maryland. The sale of cracked and dirty eggs is restricted, and eggs cannot be sold as ungraded or mixed size. 

Eggs must be kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and those on display that do not meet this requirement must be labeled as “ “Display Only – Not for Consumption.” Freezer packs or mechanical refrigeration may be used, but direct contact with water, ice or conditions that cause eggs to sweat is prohibited. 

Producers registered with the Maryland Department of Agriculture are not required to obtain licenses from State or Local Health Departments to sell or transport their own eggs at a farmer’s market, to restaurants or other retailers. Producers are not required to have invoices or equivalent records at farmers markets, but they are required to provide invoices with their name and address, the buyer’s name and address, grade, size, quantity and date of delivery when selling to restaurants or retailers.

Maryland organizations for new farmers

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

How difficult is it to start homesteading in Maryland?

Buying farmland in Maryland can be expensive, but the state has myriad resources available for farmers in order to preserve agricultural land and soil for future generations. Maryland can be a supportive and educational environment to start farming of homesteading.

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