The St. Mary’s County Twilight Vegetable Tour proved to be a horticultural and cultural learning experience. Growing up in Calvert County, my opportunities to spend time with the Mennonite and Amish communities had been limited–there were none in Calvert; however, St. Mary’s County and Charles County have large Mennonite and Amish populations. I was reminded that this year’s Twilight Tour was on a Mennonite Farm as I joined a caravan of trucks and buggies on a long private dirt road with its center pummeled by hooves.
Arriving just a few minutes late, I slipped into a greenhouse that had been equipped for the
meeting with inverted buckets and rough-sawed boards in rows, creating the look of an old fashioned schoolhouse. The greenhouse was packed with 60-80 Mennonites and Amish and a few dozen “English”. All were listening attentively to Ben Beale, St. Mary’s County Extension Agent, who was describing this year’s horticultural challenges caused by abundant rain. Anne Arundel Extension Agent Dave Myers followed with a lively discussion about building up the depth and quality of their soil and an exhortation for farmers to go out and measure the root penetration in their fields. Jerry Brust, Extension Agent at the Upper Marlboro Facility, described the presence of pests on crops this year and the best ways to deal with them.
Although Mennonites and Amish avoid the use of electricity and automobiles, they are keenly aware of the latest in conventional horticulture application of fertilizers and pesticides. Most participate in the popular Loveville Produce Auction, which was developed by the Mennonites with the strong support of Ben Beale and Donna Sasscer, a member of the Department of Economic and Community Development in St. Mary’s County. The farmers are anxious to maintain and improve product quantity and quality and listened carefully to the latest trends and solutions.
The tomato fields looked very healthy and green, despite the heavy pressure from bacterial spot that most farmers are experiencing this year. Dave Myers took a few moments to show the results of nitrogen measurements conducted on various parts of the field earlier in the day. The next stop was a squash field planted “no-till” into oats stubble, an interesting experiment that the owner appeared willing to repeat next year. The last stop was a cantaloupe field which looked surprisingly healthy and productive, despite the lateness of the season.
However, the biggest impression I got from the tour is the notion that vegetable farming in St. Mary’s has a realistic future. This was largely from the presence of the Mennonite and Amish farmers. Trim men and teenagers dressed in black pants, black suspenders, blue shirts and straw hats presented themselves as willing farm entrepreneurs eager to solve the challenges of farming and marketing.