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!