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Initial dryland rice research in Maryland, proving to be promising & profitable

Initial dryland rice research in Maryland, proving to be promising & profitable

It is not uncommon for Maryland farmer Heinz Thomet to go against the grain and grow different and exciting produce for market. However, ever since he literally started growing organic grains for sale a few years ago, I have been curious. I became even more curious when he started growing and selling rice. In Maryland? And without paddies?

Research plot. Dryland rice growing in an organic system at Next Step farm in southern Maryland.
Carolina Gold rice growing in an organic system at Next Step farm in Southern Maryland (Oct. ’15).

What started as research has turned out to be an auspicious, marketable crop.

Farmers in the region are still in the infant stages of understanding dryland rice production using natural systems, but thanks to a few key people, progress has been made. And they’re willing to share their knowledge with you.

Heinz Thomet, of Next Step Produce, is leading the way. In a 2013 WAPO article, Heinz mentions that he pioneered the risky endeavor simply because, well, he eats rice.

Heinz equipment for rice
Heinz speaks to a 15 young farmers who visit on a recent FH CASA tour.

But there’s more to it than that. Greg Bowen wrote about Heinz’s farm on this blog last year. On this recent trip, we were invited to learn about his effort to track and grow dryland rice varieties for the mid-Atlantic. The research is made possible in part through a SARE grant. On his team, and available for questions on the tour was farmhand Adam, and rice research partners, Amanda and Nazirahk. Nazirahk has been researching dryland rice with Heinz and through a local university.

The rice is grown without the use of a traditional flooding, in our climate, and in a biologically active organic system. Heinz walked the group through each step, from germination house to field, harvest equipment, all the way through to cleaning and storage. “Treat it like you would a vegetable,” Heinz shares to the young group of produce farmers. Rice is started from seed in the greenhouse, transplanted onto bare ground (or mounded black plastic) with drip tape and compost in spring, and harvested in late summer. Similar to many of the other crops he grows on the 86 acre farm.

Packaged rice. Click the picture for recipe.
Packaged rice. Click the picture for recipe.

Heinz mentions that rice, similar to other grains, should be kept in the hull until ready to bag and sell. “Hull it only as you need it,” he warns, because once hulled it’s stored in a walk in cooler below 55 degrees to retain its nutrients (it can remain at this state for months). There are other ways of storing rice, but this is the best method for his small scale operation. The equipment needed to plant, harvest, hull and store the rice is expensive for a farmer just starting out. Heinz offered the farmers on the tour to talk with him if they would like to consider working out a deal for processing their own rice after it’s grown.

Of course what is a well-grown crop without flavor and marketability? The rice, like a good wine, is rich with depiction. Heinz describes one Japanese short-grain brown rice variety called Kushihikari as a fresh, aromatic flavor that can’t be beat! And after several meals in my rice cooker, I agree the flavor is fantastic.

Based on yields, pest management, and flavor trials, Heinz and team have discovered a few varietiesheinz worthwhile to grow.  Out of last years research, the Koshihikari mentioned above and Hmong Sticky, a short grain Vietnamese variety, have responded well to the growing conditions and climate on the farm. Some Chinese varieties and one U.S. variety called Blue Bonnet have done well in the field this year, but the verdict is still out as to whether they hold up in hulling process and taste test trail.

Learn more about the objectives and methods of the research here. More in-depth analysis will be published at the end of the grant. Look out for another post about the final report and what’s in the works for rice, this winter.

Blog Update: Here is the link to the published final report for mid-Atlantic dryland rice trials.

Interview: Chesapeake’s Bounty Part 2, Mix’n’Match and Food Forests

Interview: Chesapeake’s Bounty Part 2, Mix’n’Match and Food Forests

As part of the weekly blog post series, Maryland FarmLINK occasionally features an interview with a local farmer or local food advocate. 

If we want to create a different food system, where regionally-based agricultural systems can thrive, my hope is that we value more models like Chesapeake’s Bounty. This interview is with Will Kreamer, owner and operator of Chesapeake’s Bounty in St. Leonard and North Beach. Highlighting the health, environmental, and economic benefits of local food, the Bounty sells a wide range of products year-round, all from local farmers and watermen. They seek new and innovative ways of connecting producers with steady markets, while considering the ecological consequences of food production. The St. Leonard location also operates a farm work-share program and community education workshops.

This post is part two of a two-part interview. Click here to read part 1. 

Priscilla [Maryland FarmLINK]: What is a project or result you are most proud of?

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The three sizes available for Mix n Match

Will [Chesapeake’s Bounty]: I like the Mix and Match baskets we offer. Customers can choose from three different sized baskets, each with a set price, and then fill them with any produce from the “Mix and Match” section in the store. Our customers love the baskets. The Mix & Match baskets are working at the new location in North Beach too. When we started at North beach this summer, we had to teach just about every customer, and now they bring their friends, and explain it to them.

I would also say that I am proud of our effort towards more sustainable farming and community education programs. I feel blessed to be able to have the staff and the resources to open up the farm up to provide those programs free of charge, and to try to heal the land here.

Priscilla [Maryland FarmLINK]: Perfect transition. Let’s talk more about the work-share program and community workshops you offer at the St. Leonard location. Why is this type of education important to you to offer?

Will [Chesapeake’s Bounty]: The PCSA, Participatory Community Supported Agriculture, and workshops are open to all ages, including children–who seem to have a really good time coming out on the community work days. What we are doing here on the farm is providing an opportunity for people to come out and learn basic skills that we have forgotten over the past few generations, skills about how to grow food and to do so using minimal resources. Growing your own food is kind of like printing your own money. I like that we are supporting a lot of local farms, but people need to grow more of their own food too. It is not in our long-term financial interest, but we have to start looking beyond our own interests.

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Chesapeake’s Bounty garden boxes growing summer tomato plants at the St. Leonard location.

The food we grow here is important for people who have a source of income, but it is very important for people who don’t. And that’s really where we are going to put our focus in the coming years, trying to get more folks out here who might barely be getting by and don’t have enough food to put on the table. If they can dedicate a half hour, an hour, or a couple hours on the farm and learn some things, they can harvest all the food they want to take home with them. The food is here, waiting.

Priscilla [Maryland FarmLINK]: Can you explain some of the farming methods you’ve researched and implemented at Chesapeake’s Bounty?

Will [Chesapeake’s Bounty]: We need to plant more food forests. We should focus on planting more trees that are harvest-grade variety, such as hickory, basswood, and butternut. We need to bring back other trees like the new hybrid American chestnuts that are disease resistant and almost 100% genetically identical to the original American chestnut. Our ecosystem has completely changed with the loss of the American chestnut, from the content of the soil to the health of wetlands. It has also changed the health of our human and animal populations, as it’s an important food source.

Down here, we could also grow the English walnut and harvest the syrup as a substitute for maple syrup, to have our own locally grown syrup. That would be great.

Priscilla [Maryland FarmLINK]: People are busy, and don’t always stop to think about their food choices. What is the main take-away you hope people get when they leave your store?

Will [Chesapeake’s Bounty]: We have pictures and descriptions of all of our farms and farmers in the stores and online and we’re really hoping that people are looking at those and seeing fairly quickly that everything we sell is local.

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PCSA plots utilizing straw for growing vegetables and fruits at the St. Leonard location.

Priscilla [Maryland FarmLINK]: How can individuals become more involved?

Will [Chesapeake’s Bounty]: Like the guerilla gardener, Ron Finley, is famous for saying, “You want to hang with me, come to the garden, with your shovel,” but really– just show up! Come to the farm, if you can call it a farm, and we’ll talk. There is a lot going on here.

Priscilla [Maryland FarmLINK]: Is there anything else you want FarmLINK readers to know?

Will [Chesapeake’s Bounty]: We need more food forests– period. We need to get ahead of the game, and we have the land and the climate here to do so.

 

 

 

 

Do farms have to be profitable?

Do farms have to be profitable?

To many, farming is a rejection of urban lifestyles, of being chained to a desk. Farming is a lifestyle of independence and a connection to nature. But do farms have to be profitable?

Recently, I was in a conversation with Ginger Myers, Extension Marketing Specialist, and eggs for salea beginning farmer. We were discussing to what extent she wished to be profitable. She replied that she wants to sell her free-range, naturally raised eggs at a low price so that families of all income levels can afford them. Even when faced with feed, carton and hen replacement costs that would eliminate all of her profitability, she was firm in her commitment to be of help to the community by keeping her price very low.

Her motivations are noble and she is not alone. There are farmers and non-profits raising food and selling it at or below market value for the same reason — to help local residents be healthier with fresh local food. Why is food different from any other product? Can’t farming be meaningful and be profitable too? And does pricing one’s product below market value push out farmers who set their prices in order to earn a living wage?

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 6.45.00 AMAll of these are complicated issues. Consumers have said time and again that they want to support farmers, however they don’t have a good understanding of what it costs to get a tomato to market, or that fruits and vegetables are already priced so low because of competition with imported food from countries with low wages.

A farmer who has been in the business for over a dozen years noted  a couple of weeks ago that the farmers who seemed to succeed were ones that started with a spouse or partner with an off-farm job. However, a beginning farmer without such backup is particularly vulnerable to any miscalculation, loss of crop, or loss of market share –either by a legitimate competitor or one subsidized by other sources. It’s complicated.

The only answer that I have is that we should support farmers who have to make a living wage and that we, as consumers, be should sure that we are paying a fair price. To those who grow food just to help others in need, thank you.

Romanticists and realists should see value in farm diversity!

Romanticists and realists should see value in farm diversity!

MarylandfarmI cry at (good) movies and I think wistfully about the good ole days when quaint, picturesque, farms of all sizes dotted Maryland’s countryside. Each winter, I read stories of successful homesteaders and pledge to produce most of my own food. However, I know that some farmers went out of business in the “good ole days” and I know that I will be buying most of my food this year– locally sourced, if possible. Both the romanticist and the realist in me knows that a gardener and a farmer needs a backup plan. Whether it is food on the table or farm viability, diversity is key.

tobaccoWhen Maryland emerged as a successful colony, tobacco was its savior. It was in demand in Europe and it had a long shelf life so that it could endure the long, damp trek across the Atlantic. It was so popular, that every square inch of earth was used for tobacco production, even inside some of the forts. So much tobacco was grown in Maryland and Virginia that there was a worldwide glut a number of times. Other times, wars and international politics put a stop to export trade. Families suffered and farms failed.

By the middle of the 19th century, Maryland agriculture diversified as farmers began to supply most of the food for a growing industrial region with towns and cities. Not only was agriculture more diversified, each farm had a number of farm products to trade or sell. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, when I was growing up, farm diversity provided a measure of insurance in the event that the main farm product failed or the market disappeared. I recall asking my father how badly the family suffered during the Great Depression. He replied that, other than not being able to buy a few staples as often at local stores, they felt little impact.

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Good Life Farm in New York grows vegetables, fruit and poultry – from the Groundswell Center website

Agricultural research and innovation in the 20th century produced bumper grain crops. Fewer farmers were needed to produce the same amount of grain. Over-production led to market crashes, jeopardizing farms across the nation. In 1949, congress approved the Agricultural Act, which established a policy of high, fixed-price supports and acreage allotments as a way to regulate production. In 1954, the Act was modified to introduce flexible price supports to commodity programs and then, in 1965, it was revised to provide new income support payments in combination with reduced price supports and continued supply controls.

Price supports and government assisted crop insurance have enabled farmers to rely on one crop as a farm’s source of income. Farmers have moved away from the model of diversity as a key to sustainability. However, government assisted “competitive advantage” may not survive, particularly as trade agreements may render government benefit programs for farmers illegal. Diversity will be a key to sustainability.

 

 

Townies, it is time to get back in the dirt!

Townies, it is time to get back in the dirt!

‘Agri’ came before ‘culture’

Before agriculture, humans were nomads by necessity. They could not store food for long periods, so they were in constant search for food. Through the use of crude tools to turn the soil and the accidental or intentional interbreeding of grasses, they began to produce enough grain to store. As their farming processes improved, fewer family members had to be devoted to food production and more people could come together for mutual protection and communication. From those interactions, cultures developed.Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 4.37.04 AM

According to Charles Mann, author of 1491, “In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art—the hallmarks of civilization—flourished.”

Maryland towns were located based on their potential to aggregate (and sometimes process) farm and other land base resources. Those which were the most successful grew the largest. And in those towns, culture usually flourished.

After the Industrial Revolution, towns lost much of their resource-based commerce

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.13.36 AMThe Industrial Revolution affected the economies of rural towns in several ways. First, workers were drawn to cities with manufacturing jobs, and away from rural areas. Then large food processing facilities out-competed smaller processing facilities so that local food and resource-based jobs were no longer local. Finally, large agricultural operations out-competed smaller ones so that the smaller towns were left surrounded by commodity farms with products that they could not directly utilize. No doubt, industrialized food have reduced our food budget as a percentage of our incomes, but at what cost?

Globalization has only made the situation crazier, with chickens being raised in the U.S., shipped to China for processing and returned to the U.S. for sale. Does anyone else feel that this is crazy?

When we separate ourselves from our food sources, we become disconnected with nature and uninformed about the social and environmental methods used to produce our food.  We also lose a key opportunity to connect with others in our community over an product that we all obviously need.

With the local food movement, some towns are finding new life.

Harwick Vermont has seen hard times, as highlighted in Ben Hewitt’s book The Town thathardwick Food Saved. Established to mine granite from a neighboring mountain, the town began to dry up with the market demand for granite. In the last decade or so, there has been a resolve to establish the town as a mecca for local food. A food co-op is a main retail operation in the little town. The town has created a food incubator, the Vermont Food Venture Center, for start-up businesses using local food. They have a community vegetable garden known as Atkins Field. And, of course, it is surrounded by entrepreneurial farmers who provide and amazing variety of goods from a rocky Northern state. All of this has happened in a town the size of Chesapeake Beach.

It did not happen in a vacuum. Many of the good things happening in Hardwick are the result of The Center for an Agricultural Economy, comprised of community leaders.

north beach farmers market 008North Beach, Maryland took the initiative to establish a farmers’ market several years ago, in the belief that it would bring more life to the town. They closed a street, advertised widely, and brought in entertainment to support the market kickoff.  The efforts were very effective and now stores and restaurants stay open longer, acknowledging the crowds coming to the markets.

Agriculture came before culture. Communities need economic activity to prosper. We should not allow corporate activities and globalization to take away our economic potential. In figuring out where to start, we only need to look down at our plates. Now where did that food come from?

 

 

Stewardship is a top priority at Next Step Produce

Stewardship is a top priority at Next Step Produce

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.

Heinz Thomet
Heinz Thomet

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.

Electric Work Cart
Electric Work Cart

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.

2014 Rice Crop
2014 Rice Crop

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

START Farmers’ Network visits Sassafras Creek Farm!

START Farmers’ Network visits Sassafras Creek Farm!

IMG_0005 - Version 2Soon 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.

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Jennifer Paulk (far right) and David Paulk (seated) describe how they got started in farming; neither come from a farming background.

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.

tour.too.sass.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.

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Bed of buckwheat and cowpeas that followed behind a cash crop of cucumbers

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!

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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