START Farmers’ Network visits Monnett Farms!

monnett clipWhen Benson and Jamie Tiralla moved onto Benson’s family farm in 2007, the land had laid idle for a decade and a half.  Like most farms in the region, Monnett Farms had been a tobacco farm, though some livestock had been raised as well. Monnett Farms was in need of a new farming strategy.

Both Benson and Jamie were working off the farm at the time. However, they began raising some livestock as a hobby and to supply their family’s needs. Friends asked if they could buy some of their meat, so they began to expand to the point that Benson was able to quit his surveying job and farm full-time. What has emerged is a multi-species livestock operation of Dragonfly Monnett Farms 052which to be proud.

The farm is designed for pasture rotation and to keep the livestock in and the critters out. Most of the open land, about 40 acres, is fenced with seven-wire electrified fencing.  Even their huge Angus bull is no match for the strong electric fence. They use Kencove electric polywire fencing to set up the temporary pastures, moving the animals every one to seven days to new pasture, depending on the conditions and paddock size.

Benson led the tour around the farm, pointing out its features, the qualities of the Dragonfly Monnett Farms 031breeds, their farm management practices and farming philosophy. The breeds are carefully selected for meat quality, maternal characteristics and ease of care. The cattle, sheep and goats are all grass fed and are part of the pasture rotation. That helps to control pests and undesirable plants. They do not spray herbicides. He allows the pasture one to one-and-a-half months to recover, before the animals return to graze.  Leaving roughly six inches of grass helps the pasture during dry spells. Their pastures looked good during the tour even though the summer has produced about half of the normal rainfall.

In the winter, they feed the livestock hay, moving the feeding locations around the pasture. They grow all of their own hay but aren’t sure that they will continue replacing the equipment. It may be more cost efficient to buy hay when needed.

Similar to Joel Salatin’s approach to pigs, they keep them mostly in the shade, along the forest edges, giving them a place to dig and wallow, while they also help control the forest from taking over the pasture. When they raise meat chickens, they move them around on pasture in a structure. However, they believe that processing is difficult, and not very cost-efficient, without a regional facility for poultry. They keep about 40 layer chickens near the house.

Dragonfly Monnett Farms 022

St. Croix Sheep

When it comes to marketing, Jamie is a real asset for the farm. She is a writer and is a regular contributor to the Southern Maryland This is Living and American Farm Publications.  She maintains the Monnett Farms website and writes a farm blog.

They sell at two farmers markets.  At the beginning of the year, they started selling at the Calvert County Farmers Market at Solomons Island.  Then fellow START members David and Jennifer Paulk of Sassafras Creek Farm convinced them to sell at the California Farmers Market in the BAE parking lot. That market has brought them a number of new customers. They also sell sides of their beef and pork directly from the farm.

Jamie and Benson are very important members of the farming community. Their upbeat and proactive attitudes are appreciated at Young Farmers meetings and the START Farmers Network. Jamie is President of the Calvert County Farm Young Farmers Committee.

Benson mentions that they have had a lot of luck with their successes on the farm, but when you listen to him talk, it is quite evident that they have researched everything very carefully and followed the right steps. And healthy animals and healthy pastures with good fences help to allow them time for raising a family.

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Twilight Crops Tour Part 2: from heritage corn to college cafeterias!

expfarmLast week, I covered half of the stops on the Twilight Crops Tour held August 7th. Today I will cover the rest, in no particular order. So what else is new and happening at the Experiment Station?

Herb Reid next of one of his  corn patches

Herb Reid next of one of his corn patches

In his research project entitled Open Pollinated Corn trials, Herb Reid has been searching for characteristics in heritage varieties that farmers may find valuable. Coincidentially, I’ve been reading Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, and he begins his book with the arrival in the mail of a corn cob from a rare-seeds collector. Eight Row Flint Corn once was the dominate variety in New England, known for its distinctive, marvelous flavor, but it has long since  been replaced by hybrid varieties.  The seed collector asked if Dan would try growing the heritage grain. That next fall, he ground up a successful crop of Eight Row Flint and was delighted with the flavor and aroma of the polenta he served up. It became another unique offering for his popular restaurants.

Herb has been growing heritage breeds with colorful names –Hickory King, Reid’s Yellow Dent, Bloody Butcher, CheroWhite Eagle, and Kentucky Butcher. He asked those in attendance to look carefully and tell what is the difference between the  heritage varieties and a modern hybrid variety planted nearby. We were slow to note the differences so he pointed out the different heights of the corn within the heritage varieties vs. the hybrid corn that was much more uniform in size. It was quite obvious once he pointed it out. His work will be important for farmers seeking heritage grains that are uniquely suited to this climate or produce grain that meets local market needs.

Bob Kratochvil

Bob Kratochvil

Bob Kratochvil, Extension Agronomist,  began his presentation on his research project Corn Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) & Cropping Sequence Effects by pulling out two soybean plants and asking attendees to describe what was the difference between the two. As most of us were scratching our heads, a young person spoke out that one of the plants had little “round things” (nodules) on its roots. Bob grinned and confirmed that was the difference. Soybeans usually fix nitrogen in the nodules in their roots. They had produced soybeans without nodules to help determine how much nitrogen residue was left after corn was grown on the fields the previous year.

State legislation does not allow fall fertilizer to be applied on wheat that is planted after corn is harvested unless a soils test indicates very low levels of nitrogen. One of Bob’s research projects will help to determine if there is enough nitrogen left for the wheat crop and the soybeans without nodules will help him do that.U.ofM.Experimental.Farm 018

Next, researchers have been conducting studies on the most effective use of cover crops to reduce weeds in vegetable crops. Their take home messages:

  • Integrating cover crop residue with No Tillage provides the best weed control and requires the least amount of energy input and cost.
  • Better weed control from Strip Tillage can be achieved if the initial weed flush is controlled in plant rows prior to planting.
  • Increased crop Carbon:Nitrogen ratio may help reduce weed density no matter which tillage is used.
Guy Kilpatrick at the Terp Farm High Tunnel

Guy Kilpatrick at the Terp Farm High Tunnel

I wrap up  this post with a wonderful project emerging from College Park. The University of Maryland students raised funds and awarded a grant of $124,000 toward the staffing of a Terp Farm at the Experimental Station. Produce will be used at the college cafeterias.

In front of a new high tunnel donated by RIMOL Greenhouse Systems, Guy Kilpatrick proudly presented the structure he assembled in the spring.  He will be in charge of food production in this and future high tunnels and on another couple of field acres at the Station.

Guy said that earlier in the week he met with the University cafeteria chefs and they discussed what changes will need to be made to the kitchens to accommodate the locally produced food. These changes will make it easier for area farmers to sell to the University. The Terp Farm will also give University agronomy students the opportunity to work on the farm.

To conclude, I learned about old seeds, new approaches, and a new way for an old land-grant university to connect to its agrarian roots on the Twilight Crops Tour!

 

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Whimsy and wonder on the Twilight Crops Tour

expfarmWhen we see a great farming approach or new cultivar and we use it, it seems like that idea becomes our own. We have taken a risk and used a recommended approach/product and it worked. However, most of us do not have the time to conduct our own research and experiments and we forget from whence our ‘great ideas’ originally came.

Many times, they have come from land-grant college experimental farms like the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Upper Marlboro. Dating back to the Hatch Act of 1887, each state was granted funds for establishing an agricultural experiment station in association with a land-grant college to conduct agriculture research and pass that information on to farmers. Maryland’s experimental stations are scattered over the state.

Buoyed by a meal finished off with home-made ice cream, inquisitive farmers and those who support them headed off in three wagons to eight experiment sites scattered over the 200 acre farm. I was pleased at how well the research reflects ongoing farmer concerns/interests.

Jerry Brust discusses his research into the Squash Bee

Jerry Brust discusses his research into the Squash Bee

An example is the project, Cucurbit Production Effects on Bee Activity, led by scientist Jerry Brust. Honey bee colony collapse has been in the news over the last couple of years. Experts worry that there won’t be enough honey bees to pollinate crops and some have suggested that we look to native pollinators (honey bees are thought to have originated in Asia). Jerry’s research is into native bees, in particular the squash bee. It is the most effective pollinator of squash and pumpkins which are native to the Americas. What can farmers do to help ensure that squash bees and other native bees are around to pollinate their crops? Jerry is researching how tillage, the use of pesticides and other production methods may affect the population of squash bees and other native pollinators.partridge pea.extension.missouri.edu

The simple, hardy partridge pea can be a major benefit for farmers. Partridge peas attract parasitic wasps and flies. They are also a trap crop for pests. Peter Coffey, Lauren Hunt & Cerruti Hooks are researching the impact of parasitic wasps on stink bug populations at two research farms, including the Upper Marlboro facility (Sustainable Cover Crops for Vegetables & Partridge Pea Insectary). They promise to publish the results.

U.ofM.Experimental.Farm 035

Joe Fiola discusses the latest results from vineyard research

At the Vineyard, Hops, Blueberries & Meadow Fruiting station, researchers Joe Fiola, Ben Beale, Herb Reed and Dave Myers said that they were worried about the extremely low temperatures last winter. Temperatures dropped as low as 2 degrees fahrenheit. The good news is that they suffered very little damage in the vineyard. And while  heavy rains earlier in the year at the facility were creating a challenge in the control of downy mildew, some cultivars were performing very well; in particular Chardonel vines, which showed no signs of stress from the disease.

The vineyard research was initiated as a result of the “tobacco buyout.” The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission has helped to fund the research to determine which cultivars grow well in the Southern Maryland climate. This research has helped to promote the successful development of 14 wineries in the region.

I’ve been growing a few blueberry plants for 20 years, so I was very interested in the research comparing Southern Highbush, Northern Highbush and Rabbiteye varieties. The big winner in yield over the three-year trial was Brightwell, a Rabbiteye variety released by Georgia in 1983. The next highest producer was Legacy, a Southern Highbush developed at the Beltsville Station in collaboration with New Jersey researchers. Ben Beale also pointed out that with the range of varieties available, producers could harvest blueberries from May to September. Two new blueberry farms are being developed in Southern Maryland this year.

The researchers also reported that the hops trial (four aromatics) was a success. They noted that hops require lots of work (particularly spraying), but the gross revenue can be impressive (up to $12,000 per acre) and there is a huge demand from the growing number of breweries seeking local hops.

Some of the forage test sites  were marked for the convenience of the visitors

Some of the forage test sites were marked for the convenience of the visitors

While this was the first (not last) stop, let me end with Dave Myers Forage Trial where he compared a number of forage seed mixtures of clovers, orchardgrass, Tall Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass, etc. for Southern Maryland growers. The research is ongoing as is Dave’s zest for life. He ended his presentation by leading us in a rendition of John Denver’s Back Home Again!

There was too much to cover in one blog post. I’ll be wrapping up the report on my visit in the next two weeks. Those of us who are farming or have farmed know that farming is a continuous experiment. It is exciting to see serious science being conducted to advance agriculture and to identify the best cultivars available for regional farmers.

 

 

 

 

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Conventional and organic farmers unite!

Farmers did not used to be categorized as conventional or organic. They were much shakinghands.morguefilemore independent and they followed many farming styles. In the last century, agriculture has gone through profound changes and farmers seems to have settled into two camps: conventional (using approved commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides) and organic (for simplicity, I am including all those who do not use commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, including Certified Naturally Grown.) While they use different farming practices, I believe that they share many common interests and needs.

Today, all farmers must be very resourceful. They must be able to prepare budgets and business plans, maintain and repair equipment, address legal issues, produce a marketable product, deal with pests, deal with environmental issues, and make a profit (more years than not!).  Most engage in land conservation practices and both conventional and organic farmers can legitimately say that their method of farming has come from scientific research.

Brendan McGrath recently reported on a visit to a farm in New Jersey by the State Secretary of Agriculture to Chickadee Creek organic farm in the New Trenton Times.  The Secretary was impressed with the successes of the farm’s 13th generation  farmer, Jessica Niederer, including her participation in the state’s community-supported agriculture program. Then the discussion turned to the tension between the organic and conventional farmers. Niederer said “We have different things that we’re interested in exploring, but it’s really alienating when organic farmers start only focusing on the things they don’t agree with conventional farmers on, instead of opening up doors for opportunity for learning from people who have been doing it longer.”  The reverse is true as well. Conventional farmers tend to view organic farmers as impractical hobby farmers.  Both can learn from each other.

Conventional farming grew out of science and policy

conventionalConventional farmers are constantly learning new approaches. They have benefited from the work of land-grant colleges with their test plots and scientific research to pursue better yields, lower costs and more profitable methods. Farmers did not individually discover contour plowing, no-till practices, genetically modified seeds, herbicides and pesticides on their own. Farmers made use of the research and government assistance provided them to modernize their operations.

Much of the credit for the modernization of agriculture is given to Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution.” The initiatives, led by Borlaug, were credited with saving millions from starvation in third world countries, through development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Those innovations were passed on via Extension agents, Soil Conservation Districts and company representatives.

U.S. farm policy also encouraged rapid expansion and specialization. As noted in the getbigUSDA report The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, the federal government enacted farm bills which provided price supports and income support payments that would manage supply and reduce risk for farmers. Then, under the leadership of Earl Butz in 1973, Congress adopted a farm bill that “introduced target prices and deficiency payments to replace price supports, coupled with low commodity loan rates, to increase producer reliance on markets and allow for free movement of commodities at world prices.”

Most farmers did not choose to specialize in one or two crops, nor did they choose to see most of the farmers in their region get out of business. Global competition did that.  The farmers I knew as a kid preferred to be diversified in the event that one or more of the crops failed. Most of those who are still in business wound up specializing in order to compete. A friend of mine from Iowa told me that when her father went to a bank in the 1970s to borrow $100,000 for a tractor, he was told that they would not loan $100,000, but they would loan $1,000,000. The message; scale up or get out!

Of course, there have been economic cycles where farmers who did scale up were

Abandoned farm image from article - The Making of Megafarms, a Misture of Pride and Pain

Abandoned farm image from article – The Making of Megafarms, a Mixture of Pride and Pain

wiped out by a few bad years or weak crop prices, but farmers with bigger bank roles (or a greater stomach for risk) would usually step up and purchase properties in foreclosure. In The Making of Megafarms, a Mixture of Pride and Pain, Dan Charles reported on the pride that surviving farmers felt in the Midwest for being able survive the scale up age they lived in, but they also felt the loss of their farm neighbors and farm towns that continuously lost population and businesses.

I have heard that same sense of loss in the farming community here in Maryland. After attending a lengthy meeting with well-intended non-farm members, a farmer told me that she no longer felt that she liked the community she lived in any more. Too few residents understood anything about farming.

Over the last decade or so, conventional farmers have been criticized for their farming practices. That is not fair. Farmers have been taught by universities and companies that these are the best methods to use and they were supported by federal government regulation and policy. Through the use of these techniques, production grew dramatically, farm prices dropped and the U.S. became a major exporter.

Most of the farmers who did not scale up and follow the new approaches are no longer farming. The vast majority of the remaining farmers have not gotten rich. They are the survivors.

Organic farming also grew out of science

Rodale Experimental Station - www.organicgardening.com

Rodale Experimental Farm – www.organicgardening.com

Most of the new “conventional” farming practices are only about 70 years old and not every farmer agreed with the approach or the science. J. I. Rodale was impressed with the work of Sir Albert Howard, a botanist living in England who studied the interface between ecology and agriculture. Rodale founded Rodale, Inc. in the U.S. and established the Rodale Organic Gardening Experimental Farm in 1940, which has been conducting its own scientific research and recommending production improvements for  farmers who chose not to rely on the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

iowa study

Iowa Study

Many conventional farmers believe that to reject the new conventional practices would be to accept the crop yields of a century ago. However, organic farming has progressed in yield and profitability in the last 70 years. In fact, a study by Iowa scientists (Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health) revealed that a diversified cropping system with minimal chemical inputs produced comparable yields and profits as conventional operations. And by using these diversified cropping system approaches, they have been able to improve the soil profile and make it more resistant to the impacts of flooding and drought. Likewise a 30 year study by the Rodale Institute showed comparable crop yields using organic production techniques (as compared with conventional) and much improved yields during drought years.

Prospects for the future and reasons to unite

farmpolicyIn its report on The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, the USDA acknowledges that “Certainly, not all adjustments have been voluntary or preferred, and regional differences have affected the outcomes.”  One result of the transformation of U.S. agriculture and farm policy has been the loss of farmers and the cost for new farmers to get in the business. As of the 2012 Ag census, 33% of the remaining farmers are 65 or older and the USDA has been repeatedly warning that there will not be enough farmers in the future. In addition, both conventional and organic farmers are challenged by global competition and an increasing percentage of the U.S. food is being imported.

Now that the world seems to have caught up with U.S. in production techniques (this year, Brazil is expected to out-produce the U.S. in soybean production), U.S. farmers will need to explore ways to remain competitive.  Recently, I’ve been watching the commodity crop price futures reports. Predicted record yields in the U.S. are expected to drive prices even lower, making annual profits a big question mark even if yields in are high. Bloomberg writer Alan Bjerga reported on July 11th that there is the prospect with record yields that prices will tumble to levels requiring subsidy payments to farmers. I worry that the downturn in prices will only result in even larger farms and fewer farmers.

Both conventional farmers and organic farmers have more to learn. Will they be willing to share their collective knowledge and take agriculture to the next level in the U.S?

It only makes sense.

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Will hedge fund managers make good farmers?

hallfarmlandIn a recent article in the New York Times, Cash Crops With Dividends: Financiers Transforming Strawberries Into Securities, Alexandra Stevenson wrote about the hedge funds’ interest in farmland purchase. Hedge funds have already been eyeing farmland with purchases in recent years, now up to about $14 billion. But now Stevenson reports that there is a new twist, they are creating a “new asset class that ordinary investors can buy a piece of.”

A real estate investment company has been formed called the American Farmland Company. Its founder D. Dixon Boardman reported to Stevenson that, “It’s like gold, but better, because there is this cash flow.” The cash flow comes from rent farmers pay to lease the land.

The Wall Street Journal has also noticed investor interest in farmland. In the article More Individuals Are Looking to Invest in Farmland and Timberland, Liz Moyer reported that Farmland returned 20.9% in combined appreciation and income last year, and timberland returned 9.8%, according to an index compiled by the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries in Chicago. Over 20 years, farmland has returned an average 12.5% a year and timberland has returned 8.3%, the group says.”

old farmer.morgue.file.For those who care about family farms, this new interest by hedge funds could not come at a worse time. The USDA predicts that 70 percent of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next 20 years. If so, will farmers (particularly beginning farmers) have a chance to compete for ownership of the land?

The USDA ag census documents farms by size in thirteen different categories. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms in all farm size categories decreased except for the top two (2,000 to 4,999 acres and 5,000 acres or more) and farms in those two size categories now control 56% of all U.S. farmland.

usda 2012 ag census farm size excerpt from table 9

Excerpt from Table 9 of Maryland 2012 Ag Census

In their USDA report, Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming, James MacDonald et al report that farm consolidation is a product of technology, farm organization and location and government policies. That analysis is certainly worth a read.

The report concludes that these large farms require increasing levels of technical and investment skills. They say that families now operate over 86% of all farms with at least 10,000 acres and the authors predict that they will continue to do so as long as they can manage the financial risks and as long as the strengths of family farms remain necessary to crop production.adv.

I will add that if these skills are no longer needed (or effective) or if family farms do not have adequate transition plans, then hedge fund managers may be there to step in.

In 1795, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous. . .” Will the same be said for hedge fund owners of farmland or their tenant farmers?

In the past, government policy has played a role in the trend toward farm consolidation. My hope is that implementation of the 2014 farm bill will allow independent family farms to continue to prosper, including the next generation of farmers.

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Governor’s Buy-Local-Cookout is a highlight of the Challenge week

This gallery contains 2 photos.

This has got to be my favorite time of the year! My garden is in peak performance mode, my favorite fruit (blueberries) are still in abundance and I get to participate in the Buy-Local-Challenge week. There are lots of stories throughout … Continue reading

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Food Hubs are sprouting up in Maryland!

As reported earlier in this blog, direct sales of food for human consumption grew 32% in Maryland between 2007 and 2012. However, sales of local food to grocery stores and institutions in Maryland has not been as robust because the channels for local food aggregation and distribution are not yet well-formed. That may be changing.

Vermont's Intervale Food Hub

Vermont’s Intervale Food Hub

Vermont is the country’s leader in sourcing local food. According to the 2012 ag census, their consumers purchased twice as much food from farmers as the next highest state. And despite having only 11% of Maryland’s population, Vermont has 12 food hubs vs. three in Maryland, according to the USDA Food Compass Map. Those food hubs in Vermont aggregate and distribute food to grocery stores and institutions.

The National Good Food Network defines a regional food hub as “A business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.” In short, food hubs create the food chain between small and mid-scale farmers and secondary markets.

Food hubs foodvaluechainsMost food hubs provide many other services beside aggregation and distribution, merging good business principles and social mission objectives, such as good nutrition training, food for the hungry, etc. Quoting a 2013 USDA ERS publication, these services are creating “food value chains or business arrangements distinguished by their commitment to transparency, collaborative business planning and exchange of market intelligence and business know how among chain partners, and their interest in developing business strategies and solutions that yield tangible benefits to each participant in the system.”

foodhubfinances

from the 2013 Food Hub Survey

The National Good Food Network reports that over 400 food hubs have been formed in the U.S. and that most are making profits. They are also making a difference in their communities.

New food hubs are being actively pursued  in Howard County, Baltimore City and Easton, in addition to the Hub and Spoke project now operating in Southern Maryland. The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has been asked to coordinate efforts on behalf of the state.

I hope to be reporting on lots of news about Maryland’s new food hubs in the next year!

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Do you really know what you are eating? July is the month to take control!

buylocalimagetwo

As a teen, I was an occasional viewer of the Star Trek television series created by Gene Roddenberry. I was intrigued by the moral/philosophical issues posed in many of the shows, but was not that interested in future technology. And I was disturbed by a scene where they made a meal with machines and not real food. That image of ingesting food produced from a computer just violated my agrarian sensibilities, even if it looked like real food!

As an adult, I am a bit more accepting of technology, but am even more disturbed by processed “fake food.” If you disagree with my assessment of processed food, just try to read the labels on most processed food cans and containers. Is it sane to blithely accept that the combination of non-food ingredients are always safe for us? History would say otherwise.

FDA image of transfat food

FDA image of foods containing trans fat

As one  example, trans fats were introduced into our diets early in the 20th century, according to the American Heart Association. These were the first man-made fats introduced into our diets. Even though scientists began to prove 20 years ago that trans fats are harmful to our health, there are many products still containing trans fats on the shelves of your grocery store.

If you still feel entirely comfortable about that list of words on the label that you can’t read, take a look at the website of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which states that its own list of Everything Added to Food in the United States (EAFUS) only “contains ingredients added directly to food that FDA has either approved as food additives or listed or affirmed as GRAS [Generally Recognized As Safe]. Nevertheless, it contains only a partial list of all food ingredients that may in fact be lawfully added to food, because under federal law some ingredients may be added to food under a GRAS determination made independently from the FDA. The list contains many, but not all, of the substances subject to independent GRAS determinations.” In short, there is no way that a consumer can know for sure what has been added to processed food.

July is a great month to make a change in your dietary habits and get a better idea of what is in your food. Maryland has a bountiful supply of local food. Check out sources at Maryland’s Best website, invest in a share of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm or visit a farmers market.

buylocalchallenge

July 19-27 also happens to be the week to Take the Buy Local Challenge. This year’s twist is to “Take the Challenge to the EXTREME”. Join me in eating something local every meal. Now that takes planning which is why I am posting this blog 9 days in advance.

No excuses! You can even practice ahead of time!

Don’t be a Star Trek foodie. Be in more control of what you eat by eating local food from farmers you trust and help build our local economy at the same time.

 

 

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Maryland’s big ag experiment seems to be working – up to a point

What happens when a region loses its “money crop?”

tobacco barn

Tobacco barn

Maryland was one of 46 states to win the “Master Settlement Agreement” with the major tobacco companies in 1998. At issue was the cost of health care borne by the states due to smoking. In Maryland, a Cigarette Restitution Fund was established to “implement strategies to reduce the burden of tobacco related disease . . . with a specific emphasis on tobacco use prevention and cessation and cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment.”

Governor Glendenning also wished to end tobacco production in Maryland. He proposed a “tobacco buyout” program to be funded by up to 5% of the state’s share of the 25-year settlement agreement to support Southern Maryland’s Regional Strategy for Agriculture. Thus, in Southern Maryland, we became the guinea pigs for a big experiment to replace a region’s #1 crop with other farm products.

Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC) was formed to “administer the buyout and to create a new infrastructure to support viable kinds of farming in the region.” The 17-member Commission  consisted of a broad cross-section of the community including farmers, elected officials, and representatives from local government, business, and finance.

It is difficult to describe the mood associated with the loss of tobacco to the farming community. In Southern Maryland, the size of farms, the type of barns and even the formation of communities had been heavily influenced by tobacco production. By 1998, most acknowledged that tobacco was harmful to human health. However, tobacco farmers had always been proud of their ability to bring a good crop to market, the same as generations before them. Most tobacco farmers reluctantly supported the buyout, but the future of farming was in peril. Many older farmers could not see themselves trying something new and others had a steep learning curve.

The opportunity to sign up for the Tobacco Buyout began in 2001 and ended in 2005. Tobacco total ag saleswas always the “money crop” in Southern Maryland. Farmers raised other products but most relied on tobacco to  remain in business. By 2002, 63% had taken the buyout. Ultimately, 83% of all tobacco farmers (producing 92% of total lbs) signed up. Between 1997 and 2002, the USDA ag census reported a 38% drop in agricultural sales (see figure 1).

Meanwhile, the Commission explored opportunities for new farm enterprises and staff held seminars, workshops and training programs to help farmers explore ways to diversify and market new products. SMADC developed the So Md So Good brand in 2002 and initiated the Buy Local Challenge in 2007. It provided small grants to start or expand farmers’ markets. As farms began to diversify, SMADC prepared and published the So. Maryland So Good Farm Guide. As agritourism businesses began to take off, it created the Trails Guide. As each new specialty emerged, SMADC supported it with a new guide.

value.humanconsumption

figure 2

It takes time to learn how to grow new products and develop new markets, but progress has been made, as reflected in the 2012 ag census. Recognizing the huge consumer market and the potential of the local food movement, existing farmers and new farmers began selling directly to consumers. This data is captured in the census as the Value of Ag Products Sold Directly in Individuals for Human Consumption. Processed items such as cheese, jams, and wine are not included in this category.

From 2007 to 2012, the value of ag products sold directly to individuals for human consumption grew 58% in Southern Maryland, versus 32% in the state and all five counties experienced growth in sales (see figure 2). Direct sales grew by $1.6 million in Southern Maryland.

As mentioned earlier, a number of farmers in Southern Maryland also

figure 3

figure 3

experimented with agri-tourism following the tobacco buyout, such as farm and winery tours, hay rides, and corn mazes, and SMADC supported the effort with workshops and trails guides. This effort has provided a new revenue source for farmers and Southern Maryland’s tourism industry as a whole.

Between 2007 and 2012, agritourism sales grew 142% in Southern Maryland vs. -1% for Maryland as a whole. Total agri-tourism sales grew by $586,000 over the period for the four counties and this does not include the other economic benefits associated with agri-tourism such as overnight stays and dining. Calvert data was not included to avoid disclosing data for individual farms.

Other advances

The USDA ag census does not provide the same level of data for wine sales, so we don’t know the progress made there. However, it does report that the number of acres in grape production increased 78%, from 77 acres to 137 acres, between 2007 and 2012.

Also, the Southern Maryland Meats program is too new to report progress but we expect significant gains by the 2017 ag census.

Has Southern Maryland Agriculture Rebounded? Yes and No

The good news is that it has finally rebounded to pre-tobacco buyout numbers as a result of innovation, diversification, and support from the counties, the Tri-County Council and the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (see figure 4).

figure 4

figure 4

However, total Maryland agriculture sales almost doubled over the same period that Southern Maryland was just trying to recover. In 1997, total Southern Maryland agriculture sales represented 5.6% of total Maryland agriculture sales. As of 2012, total Southern Maryland sales were 3.6% of total Maryland agriculture sales.

Southern Maryland has some catching up to do with the rest of the state to fully recover from the big ag experiment to end tobacco production.

 

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2012 Ag Census – measuring the local food movement

As mentioned previously in this blog, both the National Restaurant Association and the National Grocers Association have identified the desire for local food as one of the strongest consumer trends.

How is Maryland doing?

The short answer is that we are making progress. One of the questions in the Ag Census asks farmers to report the Value of agricultural products sold directly to individuals for human consumption (referred to in this post as ‘direct sales’). The localmarkets2012 USDA Ag Census for Maryland reported that direct sales increased by 32% over the 2007 Census figure to $28,038,000. Nationwide, direct sales grew a modest 8.1% between census years. Farmers were instructed not to include the direct sales of value-added products such as jams, cheese, and wine. Also, the Census question does not capture intermediated sales arranged by food hubs or other food aggregators, which is another way that consumers get access to local food.

Of course, growth in direct sales was not even across the state. Most counties experienced increases, but some had a reduction in value of direct sales.

value.humanconsumption

How does the direct sales number relate to total food purchases per capita in Maryland?

As per the 2012 Maryland Quick Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 5,884,868 residents in Maryland in 2012. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the food-at-home spending was $2,273 per person in the U.S. in 2012.  Dividing the total direct sales in 2012 by the Census Bureau’s population estimate we find that $4.76 per capita was spent on food for human consumption in Maryland. That represents just 0.2% of the average U.S. per capita food-at-home spending in 2012. How does that compare with other states?

States sales human consumption

Vermont is the clear leader in the U.S. Its residents spent $43.80 per capita on ag products for human consumption. Maine is second at $18.60 per capita and New Hampshire is third at $15.40 per capita. Maryland is roughly in the middle.

In the future, it would be nice if the Ag Census would be able to capture data from the sales of value-added products such as jams, cheese and wine by county. We also hope to be able to find more data on intermediated sales of local food by food hubs and other aggregators.

Through direct sales, farmers retain a much higher percentage of the value of a product produced on the farm. Direct sales also help to create jobs and build the local economy. Maryland is moving in the right direction and there is more room to grow.

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