by Enrico Villamaino

The USDA Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program was created to help ag producers enter value-added activities to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities, and increase producer income. In selecting awardees, the USDA focuses on beginning and/or socially-disadvantaged farmers, small and medium sized farms, ranches structured as family farms and farm and ranch cooperatives.

Jeremy Willet, owner and operator of Willet Family Farm in Westminster, MD, spoke to Country Folks about his family’s business and its recently awarded VAPG grant.

“The farm was bought by our family from Ernie Myers in 1930 and has been home for many generations of the Willet family,” Jeremy said. “The Willet Farm survived many hardships including the Great Depression, the 1999 tornado (which destroyed our barn) and the cancers that claimed the lives of family members too early.”

In 2006, ownership of the farm passed outside of the family. But in an effort to honor past generations and preserve the heritage of what the farm stood for – faith, family and hard work – Jeremy purchased the farm in 2017. He is the grandson of Robert Willet, who grew up on the farm.

The tallest structure on the farm is its windmill, which was constructed in 1874. It became the logo for the farm, “because a windmill is something that harnesses power for a specific purpose,” according to Jeremy. “For many generations the windmill harnessed the power of the wind to grind grain or pump water. In the 21st century, Willet Family Farm now hopes to harness the power of agritourism to benefit every member of our community.”

On Oct. 30, 2017, the newly restored farmhouse burned down. The family persevered, believing the words found in Isaiah 43:19: “For I am about to do something new.” They rebuilt. In 2019, the new farmhouse was complete, as was a renewed commitment to create an inclusive environment where neighbors are invited to gather on a peaceful homestead with pay-what-you-can fruits, vegetables and free-range eggs, a pond and stream, a pasture for small livestock, walking trails, campsites and an event space. “Each interaction with the farm is tied to empowering global humanitarian efforts through global nutrition, clean water and sustainable agriculture initiatives led by our partner, ChildFund International,” Jeremy said.

In 2020, Willet Family Farm took home the Carroll Biz Challenge Award and was named the Best Hipcamp Site in Maryland by Outside Magazine.

The best eggs and the best camping on a farm

The Willet family: Kathleen, Evans, Yodit and Jeremy. They plan to continue with their free-range egg operation, farm stays and traditional farming. Photo courtesy of Willet Family Farm

The business a 200-acre farmland collective. There are six houses, two barns, two tractor barns and two auxiliary buildings on the property. They board horses and raise pigs, free-range chickens, beeves, rabbits and ducks. They grow hay, pesticide-free produce, sell free-range eggs and rent campsites for farm stays. Outside the family, they employ one full-time and one part-time worker.

“Over the years, many in our family have become multi-career, subsidizing income with off-farm jobs. We’ve done this in part to provide for the family, but mostly to follow passions alongside caring for the land,” Jeremy explained. “Growing on the success of traditional farming, we have expanded our operations to include agritourism.”

Jeremy said bringing people together is at the heart of everything the Willets do. In 2019, they started hosting camping guests through Hipcamp. “Immediately, we saw the positive impact that this had on our farm and our community,” he said. “In our first year, we welcomed over 200 guests from nine different states and two different countries. This directly supported our vision of bridging the gap between urban and rural communities.” He added that farm stays require minimal expense or labor and that they normally see $250 – $500 per week in farm stay reservations and sales.

To boost the rest of the local economy, they created a local guide advertising shops, breweries, restaurants and markets in Carroll County. At home, Hipcamp’s platform allows them to sell products grown and raised on our farm directly to their farm stay guests, increasing their revenues. The Carroll County Chamber of Commerce recognized their efforts in attracting local tourism by awarding them a $5,000 prize in 2020. Using the data from our farm-stay bookings, we were able to secure a $50,000 grant from USDA to hire our first employee on the farm and promote our free-range egg operation. During the pandemic, farm-stay reservations were one of our main revenue streams. In 2020 Forbes Magazine named Willet Family Farm as the “Favorite Hipcamp in the state of Maryland.”

That popularity led to Jeremy testified to the Maryland Senate in support of a bill to revise the definition of “agritourism” to include camping and incidental stays. In May 2022, he was invited by Gov. Larry Hogan to attend the bill signing of HB558/SB296, the legislation that expanded the state’s definition of agritourism to include farm stays.

At Willet Family Farm, they raise every chick from birth with proper care and a healthy diet to ensure their free-range eggs are of the highest quality. They use organic feeds and clean water to nourish the chicks and hens, and never use pesticides. Proceeds from their egg sales provide chickens for families living in poverty to raise as a reliable source of nutrition through ChildFund.

“We kept receiving feedback that we had an extraordinary product with our free-range eggs. Customers regularly commented on the array of colors, the size and the taste of our eggs. We had committed to increasing our flock to be able to meet demand; however, [we] needed additional funding to market the product beyond our current customer base,” Jeremy said. And so they applied for a VAPG.

The grant allowed them to purchase billboard space on Route 140, the main highway connecting Westminster to Baltimore, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore. They also purchased ad space in Carroll Magazine. They hired a company to design print labels for their egg cartons, produce a local print guide detailing their egg quality and promote local businesses. “We now have a marketing company to produce a video commercial, and funding to hire our first part-time employee,” Jeremy said.

As for the future of Willet Family Farm, Jeremy said they plan to continue the free-range egg operation, the farm stays and traditional farming. “We’ll expand our involvement in government relations, advocating for agritourism and expanding opportunities for farm owners through partnerships with FarmRaise, Maryland Farm Bureau and Hipcamp,” he added.

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