Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cover Crops: How to Grow a Shag Carpet

Yes, I pretty much just dated myself as a child born in the late 60's, grew up in the 70's with that title. If you're old enough to enough to remember raking the carpet as something on your chore list, then we might be of the same age, especially if you remember having a chore list that didn't end with an allowance!

So if you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know that we've been doing cover crops for more than 40 years. You'll remember this picture from the 1960's of my father in law getting ready to seed No Till cover crops into the corn field to the right of this Hi-Boy cover crop seeder. Cover crops are part of our family farming operation because they are what helps us grow a shag carpet.

If you remember walking on a shag carpet, especially after it has been recently raked, you know that the carpet has deep pile, something you could sink your toes into. That's the goal of our soil management program on our farm... to have soil that feels like a shag carpet when you walk on it. In agronomic terms, we call this "tilth". Tilth is the physical condition of the soil that allows for a healthy root system to support plant growth and plant health. Having soil with good tilth or that feels like a shag carpet means that the soil has large pore spaces for oxygenation and water filtration.

While Maryland farmers use a lot of cover crops in an effort to help reduce nutrients from leaving the soil for the protection of the Chesapeake Bay, that is really a secondary reason for us to use cover crops. We use cover crops primarily to improve our soil health, and specifically our soil tilth.

Here are some of the cover crops we plant and why:

Crimson Clover: We use a lot of this as a slow release nitrogen source for perennial crops like our grapes. Besides being a legume which adds nitrogen to the soil, also provides a lot of biomass when it is incorporated into the soil. This organic matter helps add structure to the soil which helps stabilize the soil from erosion, improves water holding capacity of the soil, and its decomposition adds microbial activity to the soil. Besides that they're a good habitat when in bloom in the spring for attracting beneficial insects.

Tillage Radish: I took this picture while combining corn last week. The radish seed was aerial seeded rather than drilled or planted (we no longer have that old fashioned Hi-Boy seeder from the 1960's.) Aerial seeding allows us to spread the cover crop early enough in the late summer or fall to allow for good germination. In order to get a good stand of any crop, you need good seed to soil contact, adequate sunlight and warm temperatures for germination. Today it is 26 degrees at Noon. It is too cold for seeds to germinate at this point. Tillage radish grows a long tap root which creates nice pores in the soil which help break up compaction from driving across fields with equipment, as well as acts as a "sink" for nutrients that the previous crop did not use this season. The radish stores those nutrients in its root. When it winter kills and the ground thaws out, the radish will decompose and release those nutrients back into the soil for the next crop to take up.

The aerial seeded tillage radish seen above is mixed with annual rye. It was seeded before we harvested the corn, then once the cover crop is no longer fully shaded by corn, it greens up and gets to work on the soil tilth. Along with decomposition of the corn stalks into the soil, over time, we work to increase the organic matter and create a soft, well structured soil that feels like a shag carpet when you walk across it.

This field above has a mixed species cover crop of tillage radish, crimson clover, and barley. It was drilled rather than aerial seeded. When we do a mixed species cover crop, it is to address several issues. Barley is good a taking up excess moisture and suppressing weeds which combined with the nutrient scavenging of crimson clover and the compaction reduction of tillage radish, is one of our preferred cover crop mixes.

So cover crops is only part of the shag carpet equation. The package deal is that soil management is a practice of adding organic matter, reducing compaction, improving the nutrient profile, and working at improving the structure of the soil so that the next season of crops is grown in healthy soils and so that the next generation of our family has healthy soils to continue of family farming legacy. To maintain a profitable family farm, you need to be constantly improving your soils. Decades of cover crop management has shown us the benefits to doing so.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Playing Catch Up.

It dawned on my yesterday that I hadn't blogged for the month of September, at least not on this particular blog. But I have done some writing on various topics so I am going to link those articles here. Being that we are in the midst of harvest and crazy busy kids schedules, when I sit down at the computer, it isn't to write but to do bookwork.

Here is a sampling of what I wrote for other blogs over the last month or so:

National Food Safety Education Month

September was National Food Safety Education Month and I was asked by the International Food Information Council to write about food safety. I chose the title "My 2 BFFs: Water & a Thermometer"

National Farm Safety and Health Week

September was also National Farm Safety and Health Week. I was asked to write about this topic for the Food and Nutrition Magazine. Click here to read this blog: A Closer Look at National Farm Safety and Health Week . Many thanks to my nephew Tyler pictured in the blog for posing while mowing the vineyard wearing all the appropriate garb!

GMOs and Food Allergies

Finally, back in August, I was sent a question from GMO Answers to respond to about food allergies and any connection to the consumption of foods derived from crops that have been genetically modified. That blog can be read here: GMOs and Food Allergies.

And that my friends, is why there was nothing posted on my Foodie Farmer blog for September. Really, I was just remiss in making these links available. I have no other excuse! Thanks for the read!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Non-GMO Food Labeling: Is it truth or deception?

Recently I responded to a tweet from @BioChicaGMO who posed the question:

To which I responded:

As a result, @BioChicaGMO reached out to me and asked me to coauthor a blog for the Genetic Literacy Project. We took differing approaches toward the issue of labeling on Non-GMO foods. Last week the blog was posted:

You may have seen its seal on various products in supermarkets, particularly at Whole Foods.The organization works with three companies or technical administrators including SCS Global Services to evaluate if products comply with its standards. Most recently, it has expanded its labeling services to include restaurants and delis.
The Non-GMO Project claims to verify more than 20,000 products. “We currently have more than 2,200 participating brands, and are receiving an average of 70-80 new verification inquiries every week,” says Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, was recently quoted as saying. The organization claims sales of its verified products tops $7 billion annually.
For those concerned about consuming GMOs, this voluntary label, together with products that exist under the USDA’s organic label, provides many options. For those who oppose mandatory labeling of GMOs, the label provides an example of how voluntary labeling can work without imposing costs on others.
However, a seemingly grey area exists when a product is labeled as non-GMO, yet a GMO counterpart does not exist. For example, should an avocado be labeled as non-GMO if GMO avocados don’t exist? What about salt? Crushed tomatoes? Arecent article highlighted that some brands of popcorn are advertised as not containing genetically modified corn when there is no genetically modified corn of the popcorn variety on the market. Some people might argue that such labeling practices are misleading and dishonest; others don’t have a problem with it. This article provides opinions from both perspectives.
Labeling as GMO-free is disingenuous – Jennie Schmidt
It seems to me to be disingenuous to label foods as “non-GMO” when the counterpart GMO food doesn’t exist. The “Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966” directs the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to regulate labeling of foods and consumer commodities to “…to prevent unfair or deceptive packaging and labeling of many household consumer commodities.” I consider “non-GMO” labeling to be deceptive when the equivalent GMO product doesn’t exist in the marketplace. It’s akin to the claim that peanut butter is cholesterol free. Since cholesterol is produced in the liver and peanuts don’t have livers, peanut butter has always been cholesterol free.  To advertise it as cholesterol free is deceptive because it wasn’t there to begin with. Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Food Giveaway! Guess the Pounds of Tomatoes in Our 2014 Harvest!

I'm doing my first give away! The person that guesses  the number of POUNDS of tomatoes we harvest this year (or comes the closest) will win a gift pack of Furmano Foods canned tomato products! 

We have 150 acres of "processing" tomatoes this year. That means they are field grown Roma tomatoes that we grow for  Furmano Foods in Pennsylvania. We have been growing tomatoes for Furmano for about 10 years. Its nice to grow for a company whose products are high quality, tasty, and that we enjoy eating!

One of our 2014 tomato fields.
These are cannery tomatoes that go for grocery items like diced tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, whole peeled tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, etc... Canned tomatoes are so versatile in so many recipes, I can't imagine my pantry without them!

Here's what the label looks like before they head to the cannery!
Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene and provide a good source of vitamins C & A. While they are delicious picked fresh, in season from the field, canned tomatoes are very versatile in many recipes, and are an easy, economical, and nutritious choice. 

They are machine harvested and loaded onto these trailers then hauled to the cannery and within 24 hours are processed into yummy tomato products!
So what do you need to do to win this prize? Guess the number of pounds that we will harvest from 150 acres of tomatoes this year. I will give you ONE clue, we are expecting an "above average" crop this year. I won't answer questions like "How many tons do you typically harvest?" but feel free to do some research on that. You can see, we have filled one tractor trailer load above. There are days when we fill 20 tractor trailers. The cannery tells us how many loads they need per day based on who else in the region is also harvesting. 

1. The guess must be posted here in the comments section of the blog.
2. Family & employees are excluded from the contest (sorry Mom & Ernie).
3. I will only ship to a US address.
4. If you are the winner and you are outside of the USA, I will ship it to a friend or family of your choice in the USA or will donate it on your behalf to our local food pantry.
5. Harvest usually takes about 3 weeks, depending on Mother Nature and how well the equipment runs. Sorry I can't give you an "award" date but let's say by early September I should have all the harvest data and can determine a winner around that time. I will update the timeframe on facebook and twitter so you know when we are approaching the end of harvest. 
6. I will close the comment section when the last tractor trailer load of tomatoes leaves the farm. No entries will be accepted after than.
7. That's more rules than I had expected to come up with....

Now... Post your guess in the comments section here on the blog! The person closest to the number of pounds that we harvest wins! Happy guessing!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Coexistence: Organic & GMO

I drove to a customer's vineyard yesterday to do some scouting as Japanese beetles have been incessantly pesky this year. As I drove up the back lane it dawned on me that I had the perfect image and topic for a blog, one that I've mentioned in the past, and that is of the coexistence of both biotech and organic crops.

Perfect example of organic and biotech crop coexistence.
The right is organic corn.
The left is biotech corn.
They cannot "drift" or "contaminate" each other, read on to find out why.

In the rhetoric of social media, you wouldn't know it, but along the back roads of rural America, biotech and organic crops get along, and so do their farmers (at least the ones I know). I love living and being neighbors in the farmland of rural America. We hear the "noise" of social media, but it doesn't usurp our world. Our world is open, quiet, and peaceful. Neighbors still know each other and wave as they pass by. The polarization of our food and farming systems is on our phones, our iPads, our TVs, our laptops, but not in our fields.

This farm is not mine as I've written before, we no longer farm organically. It is the farm of a landlord I know who is not a farmer. He leases the farm out to different farmers, and it just so happens that one is certified organic and the other is conventional. You wouldn't know this if you passed by the farm. There's no billboard  or signage announcing one or the other. There are no battles or controversies surrounding these fields. There is just peaceful coexistence. I know because I personally know the landlord and the farmers. Just 2 farmers farming the land and trying to make a living doing what they love.

So why can these 2 corn crops coexist?

Biotech corn past pollination. 
This biotech corn is fully developed. If you read my "corn sex" (AKA #50shadesoffarming) post on my Foodie Farmer Facebook page, you are aware of the fact that the way corn has "sex" is by dropping  pollen from the tassel at the top of the stalk to the silk which is the hair on the ear of the corn in order to reproduce and form kernals. This biotech corn is way past pollination because the silk has dried up and turned brown. Pollination happens over the course of about 10 days to two weeks given good pollination conditions such as no extreme heat, no excessive rain, etc...

So you're still wondering why this organic farmer would risk putting his corn next to  the biotech farmer right? (Or vice versa as the case may be).

Organic corn not yet having reached pollination.
This organic corn is not in pollination stage yet. There are no tassels and there are no ears of corn with silks yet. There is no way for the biotech corn to pollinate this organic corn because 1) the biotech pollen is gone, this corn is well past pollination, it has no "male sperm" so to speak, 2) the organic corn has no ears of corn so no "female" parts by which to receive the "male" pollen. So to be biologically correct, the male pollen just like sperm, has a short life. Once released, it is only viable for 18-24 hours.  Pollen is not able to reproduce indefinitely. So once the silks on the ear have dried up, the pollen is pretty much past its ability to contribute to reproduction.

Given the different stages of growth these 2 fields of corn are in, it is biologically impossible for them to "drift" to one another. That's the management of field planning, something all we farmers do.

Coexistence is an extremely manageable situation and happens more often than you are lead to believe by the media. We practiced organic, conventional, and biotech farming systems simultaneously for 7 years and continue to do specialty seed production which still requires the same level of management to ensure purity. That's all coexistence is, management and planning.

So despite what you may hear in the media, know that it is very doable and happens often. We farmers have been managing it well despite those who would lead you to believe otherwise.

Likewise, when we have specialty grains or seeds, that needs storage, we clean, then we clean, and then we clean some more.
We clean this.

We clean these.

And we clean these.

We clean what I refer to  as our farm "infrastructure", the grain tanks, the grain trailer, the seed carts, the planters, the combine, anything that comes in contact with multiple crops that need to be kept segregated. Again, tedious work but simply just a management tool to allow for coexistence of commodity crops with specialty crops, those that need to be kept segregated from the rest. 

We recognize that there are pros and cons to all types of farming. There is no "one" best farming system that is without flaw. There is no "one" cookie cutter system that all farmers should universally follow because we all have different soil types and microclimates that impact what and how we grow. But know that we do respect each other, coexist with each other even when we farm with different methods. 

We farmers coexist and so do our crops. The world would be a better place if others followed suit.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sustainable Ag: We're Certified Stewards!

Sustainability isn't a hot topic on our family farm, it is a way of life. Recently, our way of life was certified by Maryland inspectors as being a "Certified Agricultural Conservation Steward" under the Farm Stewardship Certification and Assessment Program. (FSCAP). The program is sponsored by the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts, and farmers must meet the ACSCS standards in order to gain the status of "Certified Steward".

Under the FSCAP program, we voluntarily submit to inspections of both recordkeeping and have all our fields inspected to ensure that not only have we documented the conservation we have put on the ground, but that we maintain and preserve those practices to ensure that excess nutrients and sediment do not leave our farm.

Going through our mandatory nutrient management plan, the inspectors look for soil, manure, and plant tissue analysis and that what we apply to our plants and soils is what is required by the crop. They look at our approved soil conservation and water quality plan to make sure that all the conservation recommendations were implemented as directed. They make sure our fertilizer receipts match our application records. They make sure we correctly complete and submit to the Maryland Dept of Agriculture the mandatory Annual Implementation Report (AIR) for all fertilizer use.

Once the records pass inspection, they walk the fields, inspecting the conservation on the ground. These are practices that provide natural resource protection such as buffers around bodies of water seen below.

We're required to have a 30 foot buffer but ours is more like 1000 feet from this stream. On the right, you see trees that were planted as part of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). This program is a voluntary land retirement program that removes production agriculture from sensitive land such as this one adjacent to the stream. The practice of setting aside land that is sensitive is a very sustainable approach that actually benefits the larger downstream community more directly than it benefits us. In total, we have taken 120 acres of land out of agricultural production over the last 15 years, in addition to the implementation of many other active conservation practices.

Cover crops is also another conservation practice we put into place on as many acres as we can every fall. These crops take up any remaining nutrients in the soil left over from the crop we just harvested, and then slowly release those nutrients in the spring as the crop decomposes in the field acting as a sort of green manure. This practice adds to the sustainability of our soils by enhancing the qualities, improving the nutrients and organic matter and overall soil health which is critical to the sustainability of the farm for future generations.

Precision ag is another sustainable practice that we have employed on our family farm. Using the newest technology allows us to use less fertilizer by reading the chlorophyll content of the plant and the computerized technology in the tractor adjusting the rate of the fertilizer based on the specific crop. This saves us both economic resources and provides an environmental benefit to the larger watershed community around us.

Conservation tillage is a big part of our sustainable agricultural practices. We use both no-till and conservation tillage. Above you see Hans getting ready to no-till which means he is seeding a new crop directly into the residue of the previous crop (note the brown corn stalks on top of the soil). No till means we do not plow and therefore do not turn over the soil, exposing it to erosion, sediment and phosphorus loss. Our top soil and its health is our livelihood. We do all that we can to preserve and protect it.

All human activity has an impact on the environment, agriculture included. Sustainable agriculture is about being responsible to preserve and protect the resources that we have that provide food and fiber for our neighbors, while protecting the soil, water and environment for the now and the future. There is nothing at greater stake than the future sustainability of family farms like mine. Certification in agricultural conservation is striving for the best for our land, the best for our surrounding and downstream communities, and most importantly, the best stewardship for the next generation to operate this family farm.

Visit our conservation stewardship page at:  FSCAP Schmidt Farms Inc.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

I AM a Corporate Farm!

For years now I've been using this family pic during my farming presentations saying "We are a corporate farm and here's our Board of Directors." I was actually being facetious because our farm is a family farm, large yes, but still, what you see below is pretty much what you get (plus a few years). Little did I know that today, I'd discover it wasn't tongue in cheek, it was actually true! We are a "corporate" farm!

This pic was taken in the fall of 2007, as one of the Maryland farm families who were inducted into Maryland's Agriculture Hall of Fame.  So the kids now are all either in high school or have graduated. But this is it, the family who operates the family farm... and it happens to be a corporate farm.

I was researching USDA 2012 Ag Census data for an upcoming webinar I am speaking at on U.S. Agriculture 101. One of the questions I was asked to define was the difference between family farms and corporate farms. As I started looking at the statistics and asking questions of the folks at National Ag Statistics Survey (great guys, very helpful BTW), I was amazed at what I found out!

The 2012 U.S. Agriculture Census data shows: 
Source: U.S. Ag Census Atlas Maps
Nearly 87% of farms in the U.S. are family owned, usually a sole proprietor, or husband and wife but
with no tax or liability structure for protection
(that's scary in this day of age)

Source: U.S. 2012 Ag Census Atlas Map
Another 7% are owned in family partnerships, but does not include family farms operated by
a husband and wife. 

That's a total of 95% of U.S farming operations, owned and operated by families.... 

And here's the doozy.....!!
The remaining 5% are those horrible "corporate" farms the media is always slamming.... right?
THOSE are the ones we want to do away with right?

But wait, there's still more.....
I'm one of "THOSE"

In case that chart is too small, here is the link to the 2012 Ag Census, check it out on Table 67. 
Of the 5% that are defined as "corporate",
(you know, those "Farmed and Dangerous" farms that Chipotle slams or those big "industrial" farms run by robots and cartoon scarecrows devoid of all ethical behavior, yeah those)
Corporate farms are defined by USDA as those that are "incorporated under state law". 
So this would be an LLC, an S-Corp, or a C-Corp. 
So Schmidt Farms Inc meets USDA's definition of a corporate farm when all along we thought we were a just a good old, family farm.

Or maybe there are more of us "good old family farms" than you're being led to believe.

What the census data tells us is:

Total U.S Farms: 2,109,303
Family Held Corporations: 95,142
Other than Family Held Corporations: 11,574
Percentage of US Farms that are Other than Family Held Corporations:  0.5%   (11,574/2,109,303)
Percentage of US Farms that are incorporated:  5.1%   (95,142+11,574)/2,109,303

Less than 1/2 of 1 % are non-family held "corporate" farms. 

But the small farmer is being squeezed out by "Big Ag" right?

Hmmmm, let's look....

The average U.S. farm is 434 acres, that the median between us big guys and the small guys. Except that USDA defines farms based on gross sales, not by size or numbers of acres. Suburbia and urbanization have resulted in pretty obvious loss of farmland when you look at this map. It looks like the small guy is getting the squeeze doesn't it?

Let's take a closer look:

The majority of the acres are held by small farms, the largest segment being farms under 49 acres total.
Family farms like mine that are over 2000 acres represent only 1.4% of U.S. agriculture. 

More than half of all U.S. Farmers 52.2% reported agriculture was NOT their primary income source:
That's a lot of part time farmers. 

But historically, small farms are difficult to cash flow. 
Nearly 57% of all farms have gross sales of less than $10,000. 
That's well below the poverty line so off farm income really isn't option to make ends meet.

So in summary:
1. The majority of ALL farms incorporated and unincorporated in the U.S. are family owned & operated. Non family, "Corporate" agriculture makes up less than 1/2 of 1%. Tax and liability structure tells you nothing about the values of that business and how it operates. Let's lose the word "corporate" as a label for the way we look at farms and how they operate. 

2. The majority of U.S. farms are "small" and those farmers rely on other off farm income to earn a living. (I had a friend say they work to support their farming habit). Support your local farmers who do direct sales to consumers and farms like mine who sell wholesale to distributors which you buy at the grocery store.

Next time you hear in the media that "big ag" is putting small farms out of business, think again.

Next time you hear the media say that "corporate" farms are taking over family farms, think again.

In fact, I'm beginning to wonder why we don't think more for ourselves and pay way less attention to media and its false marketing messages.... we might learn something if we #FactCheck what we hear.