Face it. Most humans treat soil like. . .well dirt. At USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), there is a new urgency for people to know more about our soil, as good soil is disappearing due to erosion, compaction and loss of organic matter. NRCS has created a new Soil Health Division to focus on education. Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association (MOFFA) attendees were fortunate to have the Division’s new Chief, Dr. Bianca Moebius Clune, to be the featured speaker at their Winter Meeting.
Of course, organic farmers must know and appreciate the value of healthy soil. But without being able to use herbicides, most organic farmers have to till their soil. Dr. Clune says that intensive tillage is “like a little earthquake” for the soil. It breaks up soil structure, damages the biota, and can compact soil and reduce absorption. It can even affect pest management. For organic farmers, some tillage is inevitable to reduce weed pressure, but they can take actions to reduce the impact and they can monitor the conditions of the soil.
Dr. Clune provided information on how to take shovel tests to check for compaction and how to evaluate the roots for soil health and where to send your soil for testing to get a more complete analysis of soil condition, such as the Cornell Soil Health Assessment.
She urged farmers to get in touch with local NRCS offices for assistance and to be aware of the EQIP Organic Initiative that “provides financial assistance to implement a broad set of conservation practices to assist organic producers in addressing resource concerns including, but not limited to assistance with:
Developing a conservation plan
Establishing buffer zones
Planning and installing pollinator habitat
Improving soil quality and organic matter while minimizing erosion
Developing a grazing plan and supportive livestock practices
Improving irrigation efficiency
Enhancing cropping rotations and nutrient management”
Nineteen of us traveled to Newburg, Md to participate in the START Farmer’s Network tour of Next Step Produce. Heinz Thomet and Gabrielle Lajoie purchased the farm in 1999 after carefully looking for the best place to grow organic produce for direct sale to consumers. I covered some of the reasons why they purchased the Charles County farm in a blog post last year.
A number of the farm guests participated in this START Farmer’s Network tour for the first time, intrigued by the reputation of the farmers who grow a wide variety of vegetables year around, plus a wide selection of small grains and specialty fruits. Prior to touring the farm, Heinz took a few minutes to discuss the mission of Next Step Produce — We specialize in seasonal organic vegetables, grains, herbs, flowers, and fruits, grown in harmony with nature — and share his concerns about agriculture’s impact on the earth. He has devoted a great deal of time to the study of climate change and noted that when organic matter decreases in the soil, it releases carbon. He also expressed concerns about monocultures and the decrease in bees. The farmers at Next Step Produce give careful consideration to how their farming practices impact nature.
Next Step Produce is certified organic. The farmers use compost and cover crops to build organic matter in the soils. The cover crops also provide flowers for bees throughout the growing season.
They use solar panels to reduce the farm’s energy dependence on fossil fuels and added a solar panel to power their electric work cart. They installed a high efficiency wood burning stove to heat their greenhouses in the winter.
They are also not afraid to take on new crops, constantly looking for products not sold elsewhere. One of their biggest experiments is small grains, producing hard wheat, soft wheat, buckwheat, barley, oats, rye and even rice (as reported in a Washington Post article last year).
In addition to showing us the crops currently in production, Heinz passed on a few suggestions for beginning farmers.
Think ahead when seeking a farm. Other than great soil quality and access to markets (mentioned in a previous post), Heinz believes that a farmer should find enough farmland to set land aside each year for cover crops, in addition to the land needed for farming. If possible, a farmer should also seek a farm that will accommodate more than one family. He added that it often takes more than one family (there are three full-time farmers assisting Heinz and Gabrielle) to produce a crop and it is helpful to have housing when you are trying to attract good farm labor.
Take good care of your soil. In addition to the environmental and global benefits of high organic matter in your soil, Heinz discussed how healthy soil can help a farm survive a major storm. As an example, a few years ago, they experienced a heavy rain event. During a break in the storm he noticed that the soils had absorbed 5 inches without excessive ponding or erosion. Most farm fields cannot handle such a heavy rainfall. Of course, that ability to absorb water also helps farmland to “weather” dry spells.
Look for ways to fill niche markets where you can sell at retail price. Heinz pointed out that a small farm needs to sell for a reasonable retail price as much as possible. Otherwise, the farm is not viable financially. He focuses on one major farmer’s market and he tries to sell unique products that don’t compete with those already being offered. Therefore, he is always experimenting with new crops and varieties.
Next Step Produce is a not only a productive working farm. It is a great agricultural experiment in stewardship and farm profitability!
START Farmers’ Network visits Sassafras Creek Farm!
Soon after we gathered, Jennifer and David Paulk explained their unlikely transition into farming. Since David was career U.S. Navy, they have lived all over the country. However, gardening has always been a hobby that both enjoyed. His last assignment brought the couple to Southern Maryland and they purchased a house with a 1-acre field to enjoy their hobby. Approaching retirement, David said that his work inside the beltway was particularly stressful and he realized that when he would get to the garden, his troubles melted away.
The garden kept getting bigger and then they both decided to try selling their surplus at a farmers’ market. David noted that they sold $56 in produce at their first market. However, more importantly, Jennifer felt that the customers really appreciated their offerings and that encouraged them to continue.
When David retired from the Navy, he started farming full-time. Growing a garden is not the same as having a market farm. David participated in the Beginning Farmer Training Program, driving to Baltimore County once a week to learn from Jack and Becky Gurley of Calvert’s Gift Farm about producing vegetables organically for commercial production.
Jennifer still works on the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, but evenings and weekends, she farms as well. She also maintains the books and all the paperwork for organic certification. Once they made the decision that this was the best place to farm, they started looking for a larger piece of land. They were very happy to find an 80 acre farm near Leonardtown with 46 tillable acres, mostly prime soils for growing vegetables. However, they needed to build a house, so in the meantime, before they moved to the farm, they started working with USDA NRCS to improve the soils. They obtained a 3-year grant for organic cover cropping and they have made the most of it, with the purpose of building the soils for organic farming.
Their focus is always on the soil, trying to make it more productive. Most of the tillable acreage is not growing vegetables but is planted in cover crops year-round. In the fall, they plant cover crops (such as rye and crimson clover) and in the spring they mow that down and no-till plant a summer cover crop, to include Sun Hemp, cowpeas, sunflowers, and sorghum-sudan grass. In addition, cover crops follow market crops as soon as the ground can be prepared.
Both are very happy with the decision to install a high tunnel. The plants looked lush and healthy, even the tomatoes that were planted in March. They pointed out that the rainfall on tomato plants can spread fungal and bacterial diseases. Since the plants in the high tunnel are watered with drip irrigation and are not rained on, they think this is why the plants show little evidence of disease. They noted that a farmer can grow year-round and gross over $10,000 in produce from this 3o’ x 95′ structure. However, even in this valuable structure, they plant cover crops to maintain soil health and fertility.
Marketing is a huge part of the success of the farm. Most of their sales occur at the California Farmers Market in the BAE parking lot. In the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) they sell at the Home Grown Farm Market in Lexington Park. They also sell to the Good Earth Natural Foods Store in Leonardtown, four restaurants in Baltimore, Chesapeake’s Bounty in Calvert County and just started selling to MOM’s in Waldorf.
They are convinced that a market farmer can make a comfortable living selling direct-to-consumer, especially in this region!
Twilight Crops Tour Part 2: from heritage corn to college cafeterias!
Last 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?
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, 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.
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.
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!
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Farmers did not used to be categorized as conventional or organic. They were much more 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
Conventional 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 theGreen 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 USDA 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
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 TheMaking 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
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.
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
In 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.
Hurricanes should remind us of the importance of healthy soil
For farmers, heavy rains can be worse than severe droughts. They can prevent seed germination, destroy fragile seedlings, drown crops, and prevent harvest. After the soil dries, the soil can crust over, creating further problems during a following dry spell.
In the last two years, most farmers in Maryland have experienced both heavy rains, as a result of hurricanes, and major drought. These events should remind us of the importance of healthy soil.
For some time, Ray Archuleta, with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in North Carolina, has been preaching that farms with undisturbed soils (no-till) deal much better with heavy rainfall than farms using conventional practices. His YouTube video “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil“, shows how much better undisturbed soils absorb water.
But the benefits of healthy soil can be much greater. Soils with high organic content can help weather droughts, reduce the need for pesticides and nutrients, and increase profitability. Ray says that all farmers should know the four keys to soil health, which are limit disturbance, cover the soil, increase diversity, and keep a live root growing at all times.
Most farmers in Maryland have been limiting disturbance by using no-till practices and have been using cover crops in the winter to stabilize the soils and soak up the residual nitrogen. However, increasing diversity in cover crops is not widely used. For farmers, the questions to answer when considering a new farming practice are “can they afford to do it” and “is there a benefit now and in the future?”
In the USDA video Cover Crops: Under Cover Farmers, you can see three farmers who have used the “four keys” to improve crop yield, reduce loss during droughts, reduce inputs, and increase overall profitability. Initially skeptical of Ray’s recommendations, two of the farmers traveled to North Dakota to see how farmers were getting high corn yields with just 12 inches of rain using the four keys. They learned that over time, the farmers were getting high yields using an intensive cover crop method and little or no fertilizer inputs.
The farmers returned to North Carolina and put Ray’s recommendations into practice. The video shows how they sowed the cover crops in the fall, rolled or crimped the cover crop in the spring, and planted into the cover crop mat. At the end of the season, the three farmers all reported at least a 10% increase in crop yield which more than offset the cost of the cover crop seed. They saw a 98% reduction in weeds because of the heavy cover crop mat. And when comparing an adjacent field, which had been tilled twice, they also found lower soil temperatures and more moisture beneath the cover crop mat. As a result of their own successes and those in North Dakota, the three farmers are now experimenting with reducing herbicide and fertilizer applications.
Farmer John Pickler is convinced that the “four keys” are improving productivity. But he says that the biggest benefit is that it helps to “drought-proof” the soil, because the high organic content and the thick cover crop mat retain moisture during dry spells.
On a personal note, I observe that after 7.5 inches of rain from Hurricane Sandy, the pond on our family farm is still looking good. The farmer who raises soybeans up hill from the pond uses a no-till method.