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The mighty AMPs and the local food movement

The mighty AMPs and the local food movement

Last week, I got to meet a group of Agricultural Marketing Professionals (AMPs) and to follow them on part of their Southern Maryland tour of successful agricultural marketing ventures. I believe that AMPs are essential to the local food movement because of the history and timing of the development of zoning and health regulations in the U.S.

Planning and zoning departments and local health departments did not exist as recently as one hundred years ago. The need for zoning and food health inspectors was a result of the Industrial Revolution, which radically changed land use in America and changed what we ate and the way food was Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 6.34.30 AMprepared.

In agrarian societies of the past, there was little need for zoning or health regulations. All the land uses were similar and the farmers produced, processed and consumed their own food or purchased food from those they knew and trusted. The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Large factories sprung up next to residential areas, commercial businesses created congestion and spilled out onto travel ways. Workers drawn to industry jobs moved to urban centers. Middle and upper-class families sought safer, quieter neighborhoods out in the countryside, creating sprawl. Zoning regulations were developed to promote health, safety and welfare as development occurred.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 6.24.11 AMAs to food safety issues, industries began producing chemicals and additives for food to increase shelf life and appeal for processed foods being sold to families who no longer had time to produce and process their own food. Consumer deaths and consumer fraud due to improper food adulterations resulted in the development of the 1906 US Pure Food and Drug Act and eventually the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which provided specific authority for factory inspections and established food standards.

According to a report of the Maryland Association of Health Officers, the first local health department in Maryland was created in 1922 and all counties had local departments by 1934. Enforcement of processed food inspections and food handling was eventually handed down to the local health departments which operate somewhat autonomously.

At the time that county planning and zoning departments and local health departments were being established across the country, locally sourced food was being replaced by brilliantly packaged and marketed food products. Highly processed breads, margarine,  cheese spreads and cake mixes replaced local staples and were prepared for long shelf life. There was little need for local regulations to address small-scale locally sourced products. They no longer existed.

When the local food movement appeared in the last few decades, the production of  value-added items on a farm was not allowed by zoning regulations in most jurisdictions. If they were allowed, then their production was subject to health department standards intended for large-scale factory processing.

Montpelier Farms

A few proactive counties began to hire AMPs to assist farmers in the process of developing value-added production, such as acidified foods, creameries and wineries. Gradually, ag entrepreneurs have been able to re-establish local resource-based farm enterprises. Last week’s AMPs farm tour provided witness to the persistence of the farmers and/or the value of the the AMPs.

I joined the tour briefly on Wednesday to visit Montpelier Farms in Upper Marlboro and discuss zoning and health regulations with the AMPs. Mike and Adrianne Dunn opened their agritourism business in 2008 to provide an outlet for farm products and to give the region’s residents an opportunity to get out on a farm and learn about agriculture. The AMPs and the Dunns discussed the challenges of introducing uses like corn mazes and on-farm events when county regulations don’t address newly emerging uses.

AMPS tour 002
Joe-Sam Swann discusses the farm operation with the AMPs

Thursday morning, I rejoined the group to learn the latest about Swann Farms in Northern Calvert County. It has become one of the largest wholesale vegetable and fruit operations in the region. Joe-Sam Swann discussed the emerging trends in the sale of fresh vegetables and fruits and the growing interest in pick-your-own. He also mentioned the highly successful North Beach Farmers Market, where they sell their products. He noted that market was one of the first in the state to allow the sale of local wine.

My next stop was Chesapeake’s Bounty where Will Kreamer has created a marketing niche AMPS tour 012that is essential for farmers and watermen. His philosophy is sustainable, ecological and hyperlocal. He tries to provide his customers with the best sustainably raised meats, vegetables, fruits and plants that come from the closest farm sources. Likewise, the seafood that he sells comes from Maryland waters in compliance with regulations intended to sustain the harvest for area watermen.

AMPS tour 025
Owner Tal Petty disccuses the production of oysters

Another exciting new farming trend is emerging from the waters. As many are aware, the Chesapeake Bay oyster population has been at less than 1% of historic levels. In recent years, Maryland “oyster farmers” have been raising triploid oysters in cages on the river bottoms with the help and support of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and, in some cases, the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO). We visited Hollywood Oyster Company in St. Mary’s County where the team is growing a million oysters this year and as many as 3 million next year.

These are just a few of the exciting projects that the AMPs visited. Each of these businesses has had to deal with zoning and health department issues. Many have benefited from an AMP to help facilitate the development of the business. All of the businesses have created jobs, helped to diversify our local food options and have improved our food security. A mighty good story in the making!


Does a passion for growing food mean a life of poverty? Response to a NYTimes op-ed

Does a passion for growing food mean a life of poverty? Response to a NYTimes op-ed

The new and beginning farmers of today do not pursue the career to get rich. Most are drawn by the chance to work outside, to be their own bosses and to grow food to sell. A recent New York Times Letter to the Editor by Bren Smith entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” (Sunday Review, Aug. 9) states that the “much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.” The letter disturbed me so much that I put it aside for a few weeks, with a decision to address, in a blog post, the core issue—can you make a decent life farming today?

Difficult Truths

My first reaction to the article was that the author was exaggerating. After all, if you sit around a table with any group of friends or associates, will they admit that they are doing well financially? It is much more likely that they will say that they don’t have two dimes to rub together.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 4.50.21 AMHowever, the author’s reference to the ag statistics is true. According to the USDA Ag Census figures, most farmers don’t look that good financially, especially small-scale farmers, and most rely on at least one off-farm job per family to pay the bills. What distorts the federal figures is what the USDA until recently defined as “residential/lifestyle farms,” which is the largest type of farm in the U.S.

The term “residential/lifestyle” was used because many of the operators on these farms view farming as an avocation and their farm as a place to live where they can enjoy a rural lifestyle, not earn their principal income.  Take, for example, the farm owners who have off-farm jobs and who are incorporating recreation with the notion of farming. An example might be 20 acres of land with a dozen horses, some of which may be boarded or bred.

IMG_0008_2Others are farming for the product, not the income. They don’t want to lose money, but making lots of money is secondary to the primary purpose – quality food. A good example is a recent story “Retirees Turn to Farming as an Encore Career where 74-year old beginning farmer Dave Massey isn’t farming for the money. He gets a pension and retirement health care benefits. Anything he makes from the farm gets recycled back into the business. “Money is not my major motivation,” he says.

Still, I think that Mr. Smith’s impression is correct for many serious, hardworking, small-scale farmers.  They are putting in long hours with few resources and little return. They need affordable access to land, equipment, training and markets and a level playing field. They are competing with mega farms and huge corporations in global markets.  I have noted in a previous blog that federal policy appears to have been driving farmers toward a pattern of over-production to compete. As I mentioned in a previous post, 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.”  As a result, farmers scaled up and specialized to compete and many farmers simply got out of the business.

Support and more realistic prospects

Where I might differ a little from Mr. Smith is that I know of many farm organizations who worked desperately to improve drafts of the 2014 Farm Bill and they actually bent the trajectory of the bill slightly toward helping the small-scale farmer. The Bill finally provides the opportunity for fruit and vegetable farmers to get crop insurance and it has allocated some money to assist with the development of food incubators and food hubs.

It would help still more if the federal government were to adopt better immigration policies. As it stands now the USDA has acknowledged that approximately 50% of all U.S. farm workers are not documented and many, I assume, are paid less than U.S. citizens. That puts the thousands of small-scale farmers who are operating legally at a huge disadvantage.

Many of Mr. Smith’s suggestions  for improving the prospects for small-scale farms are shared by the National Young Farmers Coalition. Much more can be done to help level the playing field for our farmers.

Of course, his article’s title may have been meant to just be provocative. Farming never has been easy, but there are small-scale farmers who are making a decent living, with and without assistance from off-farm income. My dad farmed his entire life, but often supplemented the family income during the fall and winter using his carpentry skills. However, that did not detract from his joy of farming or my joy of growing up on a farm.

Farming is a worthy profession with real results. I could never discourage a child from pursuing a career that can have such a positive effect on the world. If you wonder if that is true, visit a farmers market, roadside stand, CSA, etc. and witness the fruits of their work!


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

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!


Conventional and organic farmers unite!

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 -
Rodale Experimental Farm –

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.

Will hedge fund managers make good farmers?

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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