Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Get to Know Your Farmer

I love it when I get asked to guest blog for another site.This month I was asked to guest blog for "Stone Soup", the guest blogging section of Food and Nutrition Magazine of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics I hope you'll read it. Its a remake of a blog I wrote called "Locavore" or "Globavore".  Its features some of my favorite  women farmers, who like me, are passionate about agriculture and the food they raise for consumers.

They, like me, won't have our faces on the products we provide at the grocery store, so I hope this helps connect the reader to the fact that of the plethora of food choices you have on the grocery shelves, the majority of it was grown by farm families like ours.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Do farmers have the winter off?

I had someone tell me the other day "it must be nice to be a farmer and have all that time off in the winter." Wow, that's sort of a sad impression but I guess not unexpected if one doesn't have anything growing in the fields and doesn't have livestock then we must sit around eating bon-bons right? I wish!

Once the equipment has been cleaned up and put away, we dive into the long neglected piles of paperwork that we didn't have time for during the growing season. While the winter is a bit "slower" as in we may actually sit down as a family in the evening and eat dinner together, I would say that we are finally able to keep "bankers hours" like a lot of people working "9-5" so to speak. We can do a regular 8 hour day, instead of a 12 or 14 hour day.

So what's going on on the farm right now?

1. Crop Insurance: compiling the paperwork and all the years of records that the insurance adjuster needs to verify our claim on wheat, corn, and grapes. Yes, we have claims in all 3 crops this year. Which is better than last year, when we had claims in 5 crops. Crop insurance requires demonstration of all your harvest records, amounts planted vs amounts harvested... for 4 years so they can determine your "average" to calculate your "loss".

2. Field records: particularly here in Maryland where nitrogen and phosphorus are regulated nutrients, all your applications must comply with your mandatory nutrient management plan so we dot our "i's" and cross our "t's" when it comes to filing our annual implementation report. Also, we are analyzing our field data to show what areas of various fields were productive, what areas were under-productive and what can we do in the coming season to improve our farming operation. Farmers do a pretty indepth "self-analysis" of how the year went and what they can improve upon it each and every year. We look at what we did to that field, from how we prepared the seed bed and what type if any conservation tillage we performed, to how many seeds we planted per acre, to what type and amount of fertilizer that field received, to the yield data where we try to connect what we did to the performance of the crop.

3. Bookwork: especially this year with the "fiscal cliff" we are trying to plan our family business so as to protect ourselves from the whims of the government and the policy makers who don't understand farming to begin with. Yes, I know that's a jab, but frankly, its the truth. Secretary Vilsack said in an interview recently on AgDay that the rural population is being marginalized. This is so true. We don't have the population base to influence policy makers or the votes. We have little representation in government particularly at the state and federal level who "get" rural America. So this bookwork I speak of is to plan our finances as best we can so that we can continue to farm inspite of the policymakers and government officials.

4. Volunteer service/ meetings: Here is a list of the agricultural organizations that my husband and I serve as volunteer board of directors: Maryland Soybean Board, National Association of Conservation Districts, Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts, Queen Anne's County Soil Conservation District, Maryland Farm Bureau Specialty Crops Committee, Queen Anne's County Farm Bureau, Chesapeake Fields Farmers Cooperative, Maryland Grape Growers Association, U.S.Wheat Foods Council, Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board, and Queen Anne's County Right to Farm Committee, and the Governor's Commission on WineGrape Industry. Between December 1 and mid-March, we have multi-day board meetings or annual meetings to discuss the business of these organizations.  This list doesn't even touch upon the community groups we are involved with or the groups who ask us to come be a speaker at one of their meetings because they want to hear from a farmer. Service to others is a core value for us.

5. Professional Development: yes, we farmers do pursue continuing education to further our knowledge about our businesses. As a dietitian, I'm required to get a certain number of credits in order to maintain my credentials. While farmers don't have a required nubmer of credits, we typically attend several  courses or conferences to keep up with what's new in agriculture.  My annual training has been to  attend the Executive Women in Agriculture conference in Chicago where I get to learn with other farm women how to improve our family businesses. We try to find areas of learning that we would like to improve on such as no-till farming techniques or our knowledge of computer software that helps us be more technologically advanced on our farm. We are intentional about continuing to learn so that we are practicing continuous quality improvement on our farm.

6. Vineyard pruning: winegrapes get dormant pruned in the winter so we are actually in the field pruning our grapevines which prepares them for the next season's crop. Our goal is to have all the vines we have and those we are hired to prune, done by the end of March. This level of diversification helps us keep our employees working through the winter as well.

So in fact, we have very little slow time on the farm during the winter to eat bon-bons...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cowboys and Politicians: A Cowboy Named Bud

I can't take credit for this and in fact saw it posted on quite a number of social media sites. It may be tongue in cheek, but its  unfortunately true when it comes to our government officials and those who make public policy with no background or experience on the topics they are deciding. It does tell us how imperative it is for average citizens to be proactive with your local, state, and federal representatives. Tell me what you think!

A cowboy named Bud was overseeing his herd in a remote mountainous pasture in Montana when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced toward him out of a cloud of dust.
The driver, a young man in a Brioni® suit, Gucci® shoes, RayBan® sunglasses and YSL® tie, leaned out the window and asked the cowboy, "If I tell you exactly how many cows and calves you have in your herd, will you give me a calf?"
Bud looks at the man, who obviously is a yuppie, then looks at his peacefully grazing herd and calmly answers, "Sure, why not?"
The yuppie parks his car, whips out his Dell® notebook computer, connects it to his Cingular RAZR V3® cell phone, and surfs to a NASA page on the Internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite to get an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to another NASA satellite that scans the area in an ultra-high-resolution photo. 
The young man then opens the digital photo in Adobe Photoshop® and exports it to an image processing facility in Hamburg, Germany .... 
Within seconds, he receives an email on his Palm Pilot® that the image has been processed and the data stored. He then accesses an MS-SQL® database through an ODBC connected Excel® spreadsheet with email on his Blackberry® and, after a few minutes, receives a response. 
Finally, he prints out a full-color, 150-page report on his hi-tech, miniaturized HP LaserJet® printer, turns to the cowboy and says, "You have exactly 1,586 cows and calves." 
"That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my calves," says Bud. 
He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on with amusement as the young manstuffs it into the trunk of his car. 
Then Bud says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my calf?" 
The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, "Okay, why not?"
"You're a Congressman for the U.S. Government", says Bud. 
"Wow! That's correct," says the yuppie, "but how did you guess that?" 
"No guessing required." answered the cowboy. "You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked. You used millions of dollars worth of equipment trying to show me how much smarter than me you are; and you don't know a thing about how working people make a living - or about cows, for that matter. This is a herd of sheep.

Now give me back my dog.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Harvest Interrupted

I'm so proud of our guys! Harvest time on any farm is a very busy season. Because of our diversification, we harvest 7 months a year, beginning in May, and ending, hopefully, in November. Soybeans are always the last crop to be harvested and it requires a lot of management on our part because we grow food/tofu grade soybeans, seed-grade soybeans, and feed-grade soybeans. (See my December 17, 2011 blog called "The Many Faces of Soy"). Equipment needs to be diligently cleaned between varieties and tracking which beans go into which bins and to which elevator. Its a bit of a juggle and something we try to get accomplished with minimal interruption.

As with any farmer, we are anxious to be finished with harvest as soon as possible. We no longer have to worry about weather and the hand that Mother Nature deals us once everything is "in the bin". That's why I'm so proud of our guys who interrupted harvest on Friday, November 23, 2012.

No, we did not go Black Friday shopping!

My husband, brother-in-law, myself, my son, daughter and nephew all joined together with others from our church and headed out on a mission trip 2 hours south to Deal Island, Maryland which was hit by Hurricane Sandy, but only recently (finally) declared a disaster area by the federal government.

Friday was a gorgeous day. A PERFECT day for soybean harvest... and our combines stood still. Unheard of! We knew that the needs of these folks in Somerset County were falling through the cracks and want to contribute to the relief effort. Their needs took priority over our harvest. We're so happy we could help.

There is a lot of need up and down the Eastern Seaboard. If you would like to contribute, you can donate $10 by texting "RESPONSE" to 80888 and reply "yes" to the text you receive from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. While there are many wonderful relief organizations, 100% of your donation to UMCOR goes to disaster relief and not administrative overhead. For more information or to make a larger donation,  visit The United Methodist Committee on Relief

Some of the men who went on this mission trip, my husband in the center wearing a green sweatshirt and my brother-in-law on the far right.
My daughter & son loading a trailer full of wet, moldy furniture, carpet and other unsalvageable items.
Both are members of our church youth group.

Cleaning up downed trees was one of our main jobs and these girls work hard!

Our group of 18 did a good job tamping down the hump of roots left over from a fallen tree!
My nephew on the right spreading tar on a metal roof to help stop the leaks. 

I call these "The Hurricane Kids" from our church youth group which I lead.
This is the 2nd hurricane relief mission trip we have done in as many years.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Brine It, Grill It. The BEST Turkey Recipe!

I have a tradition which is to cook my Thanksgiving turkey in a pretty non-traditional way. I charcoal grill it. I discovered this recipe 6 years ago while reading an issue of Yankee Magazine. The recipe was provided by Chef Geoff Gardner of Sel de la Terre Restaurant in Boston which has been named one of the top 100 new restaurants in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. On a whim, I decided to try this recipe and it has changed my whole Thanksgiving turkey perspective! I LOVE the flavor this brine gives to the turkey and the moistness of the meat. Combined with the smokey grilled flavor, this is by far the best turkey recipe!  I have tried this recipe with both store-bought and locally-raised turkey and it works well with either.

Marylander's have lots of options to purchase local turkey. I would encourage you to find a turkey farm near you that does direct to consumer sales and give them a try. Click here for the list of Maryland turkey farms:  Find a Maryland Turkey Farm If your not a Marylander, google your state's department of agriculture which should have a listing of turkeys and other products that farmers in your area sell directly to consumers. Try to support your local farmers whenever possible!


2 cups sea or kosher salt

2 cups sugar

2 T dried thyme

1 T dried rosemary

2 T whole black peppercorns

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 gallons water

12-14 lb turkey

5 bay leaves

1 orange sliced in half

1 apple sliced in half

In large stockpot, combine 2 gallons water, salt, sugar, dried thyme & rosemary, peppercorns, and garlic. Bring to a simmer and stir to dissolve salt; remove from heat. Fill sink with ice water, then lower pot into sink to cook brine. When brine is cooled, submerge turkey in brine. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Heat grill to medium (about 375-400 F). If using charcoal, build fire on one side of grill. Remove turkey from brine and discard brine. Rinse and pat turkey dry, place bay leaves inside cavity, rub skin with sliced orange and apple, then place in cavity. Place turkey breast side up in a large disposable aluminum baking pan and place on grill. (Blogger note: I also place the turkey in a cooking bag which I think helps keep the flavors and juices inside).  If using charcoal, place pan on opposite side of fire for full circulation of heat. Cover grill tightly. The grill does need to be placed out of direct wind or you will never be able to maintain the temperature of your grill. DO NOT place your grill in your garage or other enclosed space due to carbon monoxide poisoning!

Check turkey every 30 minutes and baste with any pan juices. Charcoal grills may need to have extra charcoal added to maintain heat. Be careful not to let grill flare up. Grill turkey about 2 hours or until meat thermometer inserted into thigh registers 170 F. Let turkey rest at least 30  minutes before carving.
Enjoy & have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Saga of the Stolen Sheep

Let me start by saying, this story has a happy ending. Who would have thought that our first trip to the North American International Livestock Expo (NAILE) would take such a turn of events as a trailer full of stolen sheep.

So a little background. My daughter is in the 4H sheep project. She exhibits sheep every year at several fairs and works with a local sheep breeder where she gets her show sheep.

This year, in order to help expose her to the world of sheep showing outside of our region, we decided to attend this big livestock expo, not as exhibitors, but as shepherds. Our breeder, John Hall of Hall Club Lambs needed help getting his sheep ready for the sale at NAILE in Louisville, KY so my daughter and her best friend agreed to attend the expo and help John with the sale of his sheep.

Louisville is 700 miles and a 12 hour drive from our farm. Since I only had 2 - 12 year old girls with me, and not being the best long distance driver, we drove 4 hours the first night and stayed at a hotel then drove the rest of the way the next day. Our breeder did the same thing, except he has a camper in the back of his pickup so he camped overnight in a parking lot in Morgantown, WV, about 5 hours from his farm.

The next morning his truck didn't start so he called AAA for a tow to a repair shop. He had to unhitch the livestock trailer and leave it in the parking lot, which the business said was fine and something that contractors and other people did all the time. When he got back a little while later, his trailer with his sheep on board had been stolen. I can't imagine what went through his mind at the time. If it were me, I would have been sick to my stomach. He called me in Louisville to tell me what happened and I nearly was. How disgusting that someone would do such a thing.

Long story short, on thursday I started tweeting out the stolen trailer license plate (thanks to all who retweeted by the way) and John sent an email to the sheep breeders association. We were both pretty much convinced that the trailer and sheep were gone forever. I mean, how do you find such things in the hills of West Virginia?

On Saturday, a full 48 hours after the trailer had been stolen, a West Virginia farmer saw a trailer parked at a park & ride right off of I-79 south of Morgantown, about 3 miles from where the trailer had been stolen. He had been one of  the recipients of the email that went to the sheep breeders association and so was aware that a trailer of sheep had been stolen in his area.

 Lo' and behold, he found the sheep on the trailer unharmed and in reasonably good condition! He got permission from the police to bring the trailer back to his farm so he could attend to the sheep. He fed and watered them and while they are all pregnant and due to lamb over the next few months, they all seemed to be in fairly good shape considering.

It amazes me that someone would actually steal a trailer of sheep. The side slats were open, so any intelligent thief would have looked in to see that it was sheep, not motorcycles, not ATVs, not tools or equipment. Apparently, they either got wind that they were being looked for (who knows, maybe they were on twitter too), and got cold feet, or they got the trailer somewhere, and THEN looked inside and discovered it was sheep, NOT motorcycles, ATVs or expensive equipment.

While we may never know why the thieves changed their mind, we are extremely grateful to the Hatton family of West Virginia for finding and tending the sheep until we could get John back to pick up his now repaired truck and the trailer full of sheep.

The sheep are now home and recuperating from this saga.

The Hatton family with breeder John Hall (on right) with recovered trailer & sheep.

Thank you Hatton family for finding and tending the stolen sheep! The support and community of farm families around this country is awesome!

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Meaning Of Harvest

As we continue work toward the end of our harvest for 2012, I was asked to guest blog for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for their online Food & Nutrition Magazine. I was asked to reflect on what harvest means to me. The link below will lead you to my guest blog.

             Stone Soup: Harvest On The Front Lines

In this week post-Hurricane Sandy, I am even more grateful to be reaching the end of our harvest season in a few weeks. The picture below I took the day after Sandy blew over us. Our ground was so dry that most of the 10" of rain soaked right in.  The rainbow reminded me that there is the sign of the promise!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Women in Agriculture: Strength in Numbers

I've been blessed of late to be asked to guest write or blog for a several media outlets. Earlier this week, my article on women in agriculture entitled "In the Company of Many" discussed the rise of the role of women farmers. It was published in a special section of our local weekly agriculture paper called The Delmarva Farmer.

To the women farmers, both those I've met and those I have not, I am thankful to be in the company of so many wonderful female farmers!

Here is a link to my article about women in agriculture. Enjoy!

In the Company of Many

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Nothing is Certain but Death and Taxes

Odd that I would start a blog referencing Benjamin Franklin, but this topic is timely and critical if you care about the preservation of the family farm and the farmland used to grow your food.

This blog has nothing to do with your food... and EVERYTHING to do with your food supply. Unless Congress acts, at the stroke of midnight January 1, 2013, the federal estate tax will revert to pre-2001 levels or from a current $5 million exemption to a $1 million exemption. If you don't think this will impact your food, think again. One of the biggest threats to farming today is the inability of heirs to retain the farm and keep it operational is the federal estate tax. According to a report issued by the Joint Economic Committee this summer entitled the Cost and Consequences of the Federal Estate Tax, estate tax is the "overwhelming cause of the dissolution of family businesses." Since 98% of all farms in the US are family owned, this has wide spread implications over the next 10-20 years as the aging farm population passes away.

Most farms are land rich and cash poor. The report also noted that of the majority of the assets on a farm, 85% of the value is held in real estate, ie: farmland. Hard assets account for 88% of a farm's value whereas liquidity was only 12%. So when faced with a death in the family, few family farms have a choice but to auction off equipment and land in order to pay the estate tax. This results in the break up of the family farm. The remaining portion may not be sufficient to support the heirs to stay in farming, or by auctioning off equipment, leaves the heirs in a position to be unable to farm. I mean if you sell the tractors and combine to pay Uncle Sam his taxes, where do you get the cash to buy another tractor and combine? You just gave all your cash to the government and now don't have the equipment you need to operate your farm. You can't just "go" get more equipment.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation press release on this report :“When estate taxes on an agricultural business exceed cash and other liquid assets, surviving family partners are forced to sell illiquid assets, such as land, buildings or equipment to keep their businesses operating,” said Stallman. “With 88 percent of farm and ranch assets illiquid, producers have few options when it comes to generating cash to pay the estate tax.” The video below details  AFBF President Bob Stallman's call for Congress to protect farm families from the impending change in the reduction of the federal estate tax exemption.

I am part of a 3rd generation family farm. The 2nd generation (my father in law) has sold some of the farming assets to the 3rd generation (my husband and brother in law), but the majority of the farm, ie the land, the farm's main asset, is still held by the 2nd generation. Upon death, the 3rd generation (us) will be responsible to paying the estate taxes on nearly 1800 acres of land plus additional assets held by the 2nd generation.

Unless Congress acts, on 1/1/13, the current $5 million exemption will revert to a $1 million exemption.

Let's look at what $1 million exemption looks like to a family farm:

$1 million exemption = 100 acres of land.

$1 million exemption = 2 Combines
$1 million exemption = 3 - large Tractors

$1 million exemption = 4 - irrigation systems

$1 million exemption = approximately 115,000 bushels of corn

$1 million exemption = approximately 61,000 bushels of soybeans.

$1 million exemption = approximately 154,000 bales of hay

While these may seem like large numbers to someone who doesn't farm, they are not. They are the value of your every day items on a family farm. So if a $1 million exemption covers approximately 100 acres, we will be paying taxes on the remaining 1700 acres. And that will be at the 55% tax rate. It spells real trouble for any farmer inheriting the farm as of 1/1/13. Without doing the math, I can tell you that is a chunk of change we do not have.

Farming is not a hobby nor is it cheap. It takes real dollars and real assets to produce your food. All of these things are up for auction when an estate is passed from one generation to the next at death.

Morbid subject? Maybe. But a real crisis facing U.S. farm families.

So what can YOU do? If preservation of the family farm and farmland is important to you then call your Senators and Representatives and ask them to move on reforming the federal estate tax THIS YEAR! At a minimum, we need to extend the current $5 million exemption. At best, we need to abolish estate tax.

The link will lead you to a webpage providing you with information on contacting your Senators:Contact Your Senators

This link will lead you to a webpage providing you with information on contacting your Congressmen: Contact Your Representatives

To read the full details of the Joint Economic Committee Report, click on this link.
JEC report on Cost & Consequence of the Federal Estate Tax

Thank you for taking the time to help with this critical issue.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Why are your crops dead?"

I love it when I get to blog about real questions that real people ask me about farming. The other day, someone ask me why we wait until our crops are dead to harvest them. I had to think about what she meant before I could answer. I asked "What do you mean?" She replied "You know, how they all turn brown and die and then you harvest them."
I think she means corn that looks like this.
Or soybeans that look like this.

I understand the confusion. Most people who garden don't wait till their plants are dead to harvest the produce... but most people who garden do not grow grain. Grains or cereal crops are the "amber waves" of grain sung in "America the Beautiful". These crops may look "dead", but are actually "ripe" which is a better term than dead, and ready to be harvested.

Grain crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, sorghum and others are harvested when ripened and for those plants, ripening means they have dried down and their green tissue has turned brown. Since these crops have a long storage life, they must be low in moisture in order to be held in large grain bins without going moldy. They have to be dry in order to have any shelf life for future use in a food or feed product. Consumers don't want moldy grain in their food, nor do animals care for moldy grain in their feed, not to mention the health risk to both if moldy grain is consumed by either.

In our combine, we have a monitor that tells us how many bushels per acre we are harvesting, how many acres we have harvested, and what the moisture content is of the grain we are harvesting. If we harvest grains that are too high in moisture and deliver them to a grain elevator, we get "docked" or penalized for high moisture content. We try to harvest at the right moisture level but occasionally have to run grain through a grain dryer to lower the moisture before we sell it. Drying grain gets expensive so we do our best to harvest at the right moisture.

Right now, corn is running 14-18% moisture. We get docked if the moisture is over 15.5%.  We grow 104 - 112 day corn which means we can stagger our harvest dates over time so that the corn does not ripen all at the same time. This helps us plan the demand on our farm equipment and manage our resources more efficiently.

Today, we harvested corn which averaged 76 bushels/acre, less than half our normal average for dryland/unirrigated corn, due to the drought. This is the 2nd year of drought for us here in Maryland. Last year, 2011, we averaged barely 35 bushels/acre so despite not having a great year in 2012, we are thankful its not a repeat of the drought of 2011. Crop insurance is a critical component of the Farm Bill for years like this year and last. (and a future blog topic)

Soybeans must be under 13.5% moisture. Right now our soybeans look like this picture above.  Soybeans are grouped into 13 different maturity groups, based on their adaptation to the climate and latitude. We grow late Group 3 to some early Group 5 soybeans. These beans are just starting to turn yellow and approach what we call "leaf drop stage" when the leaves turn brown and drop off, sort of like the first soybean picture above. Because of the high humidity and risk of hurricanes in our region, we harvest corn first and soybeans last. Last year, besides the drought, Hurricane Isabel flattened our irrigated corn, so between the drought and the hurricane of 2011, it was one of our worst years on record. In a good year, we will be harvesting soybeans through the end of November or early December because of a large crop to bring in. If we finish by Thanksgiving, we've had a not-so-good year, meaning there wasn't much to harvest.

And so now you know why grain crops turn brown... in case you ever wondered.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Chardonnay is a grape!

Those of you who know me or have followed my blog or tweets, you know that my main focus on our family farm is grape production.  We have 22 acres of winegrapes on our farm which is currently the largest wholesale vineyard in Maryland. I say wholesale because there are vineyards associated with wineries that are larger than ours. When I say we have a vineyard, folks assume that we are also a winery. We're not.  You wouldn't want to drink anything I have previously attempted to ferment. I've given up trying to gain the winemaking skill set and focused on developing my skills as a high quality grape producer. In addition to growing grapes on our farm, I also provide custom vineyard management services and consulting to other vineyard owners in our region.

Photo Credit: Curt Dennison

There is quite a bit of interest in growing grapes. Folks seem to think its "romantic". Personally, I've found nothing all that romantic about working in 100 degree heat in July or lifting 30 pound lug after lug of grapes onto a trailer to haul to a winery, but to each his own. Folks love the aesthetics of a well managed vineyard and enjoy consuming the product that comes from it. As romantic as it may seem to walk through a vineyard with a glass of wine, its takes a huge amount of work, mostly hand labor, to manage a vineyard. As a kid, my first job was working shade tobacco in Western Massachusetts where I grew up. It was a very labor intensive job. Grapes are even moreso. Keep that in mind if you're considering  a vineyard on your property.

Our vineyard at sunset.
We frequently have visitors and folks stop by who are interested in having a vineyard or just stop by out of curiosity. When they ask what grapes I grow, and I list them off, I usually hear "Oh! I didn't know __________ (fill in the blank) was a grape! I thought it was just the name of a wine." Chardonnay is a grape. Chardonnay wine comes from the Chardonnay grape. Likewise for Merlot, Riesling, Malbec, etc...

Hand harvest of Vidal Blanc, one cluster at a time...
Everything we have planted in our vineyard was at the request of one or more wineries in Maryland. When we first started growing grapes 10 years ago, there were only 12 wineries in the entire state. I called every one of them and asked what grapes they were in need of and kept a tally sheet to see which varieties had more interest. Today there are 55 wineries in Maryland and each variety we grow was planted at the request of at least one of them.

For red grapes (actually they are purple, but they make red wine so we call them red grapes), we grow: Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinotage, and Chambourcin. In addition, we manage customer vineyards who grow: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Malbec, and Landot Noir.

Sangiovese, an Italian red grape.

For white grapes we grow: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (is actually a purple-ish skinned grape but makes white wine, Pinot Gris is the grape, Pinot Grigio is one of the style wines). Traminette (hybrid of the grape Gewurztraminer), and Vidal Blanc. We also manage vineyards that grow Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Manseng. These are all grape varieties thus the name of the wine if they are bottled as a varietal wine. There are still hundreds of others grape varieties.

10 Tons of Vidal Blanc, hand-harvested and loaded for delivery.
We take great pride in high quality winegrape production. They say that wine is made in the vineyard, which is true. Poor quality grapes do not make great wines. Our grapes have netted wineries awards locally and regionally. This year, our grapes are represented in 9 awards given at the 2012 Maryland Governor's Cup including a Best in Class, as well as gold, silver and bronze medals for several of the wineries. The wineries include: Frederick Cellars, Boordy Vineyards, Cassinelli Winery, Layton's Chance Winery, St. Michael's Winery, and Woodhall Wine Cellars.

So far the 2012 season is one of our best grape-growing years. The drought which negatively impacted the corn and beans for the second year in a row, is beneficial for the grapes. (Thus it pays to be diversified) Unlike last year however, when we had 45 inches over an 8 week period during grape harvest, this year the rains hasn't come in amounts that cause the grapes to rot and fall apart.

We have hand-harvested 71 tons of grapes in the last 3 weeks. My picking crew is dedicated and hard-working. Without them, we'd never get all the fruit picked. We have about 50 more tons to go over the next couple of weeks. The fruit is in beautiful condition, super sweet with these warm days and cool nights. 2012 should be a fabulous vintage!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Food Fight: Organic or Conventional?

This week a study from Stanford University created quite a buzz about our food and our food supply system. The study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine was entitled: "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review." (Smith-Spangler et al, Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366). The authors looked at 45 years worth of published research comparing the nutritional differences between the two farming systems. The crib notes version of what they found was that there was no significant difference in nutritional value between organically produced foods and conventionally produced foods.

Likewise, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a similar study in 2010 looking at over 50 years of research and reached a similar conclusion. (Dangour et al, Am J Clin Nutr. 2010: 92:203-10.)

My purely anecdotal conclusion from my own farming operation would concur with the results of these reviews. The nutritional value of what you eat is a direct result of the quality of the soil it is grown in. The soil quality is not dependent on a "farming system" ie: organic or conventional. Soil quality is contingent on the care and stewardship of the farmer farming the land. Care and stewardship are not "farming systems" but philosophies that work within both farming systems. Care and stewardship are not mutually exclusive to conventional farming. Visit a family farm and you will discover quite the opposite is true.

Soil condition and quality is a direct result of care and stewardship and will reflect the nutrients of that care and stewardship, as well as the nutrients that are inherent to that particular soil type. If a soil is low in boron, the food grown there is likely to be low in boron. If a soil is high in iron, the food is likely to be higher in iron than food grown in iron deficient soils. There is a direct correlation between the nutrients in the soil and the nutrients in your food grown from that soil regardless of whether that farmland is organic or conventional.

Some folks will say "well organic farmers take better care of their soils with organic practices." Let's take a closer look at that premise...

Wikepedia defines organic farming as "uses a variety of methods to improve soil fertility, including crop rotation, cover cropping, reduced tillage, and application of compost. By reducing tillage, soil is not inverted and exposed to air; less carbon is lost to the atmosphere resulting in more soil organic carbon. This has an added benefit of carbon sequestration which can reduce green house gases and aid in reversing climate change."

Jeez, sounds like my farm... which is conventional...

OK, let's look at those practices:

Crop rotation - yup we do that. We do that so that we build up the soils and reduce the likelihood of pest resistance by repeatedly planting the same thing in the same field year after year.
See this field of edible/tofu soybeans? Last year it was planted in corn.
Next year it will be back in corn or hay or tomatoes or green beans. We rotate our crops annually. Always have. Always will. Period. Conventionally.

Green manures & cover crops - yup, we do have and have for 40+ years.
Typically we plant cover crop wheat or rye. If we are looking to build up our soil fertility and tilth, we plant a mix of Austrian snowpeas, rapeseed, and crimson clover. If we are looking to break up compaction and tight soils, we plant tillage radish which you may also know as the Japanese delicacy Daikon radish. My husband says tillage radishes produce the most "mellow" soil. That's farmer terminology for really good soil quality. We plant the type of cover crops and green manures that the soil tells us it needs. Always have. Always will. Period. Conventionally.

No-till/conservation till - yup, we do that.
Good gosh this picture is older than I am and what a cutting edge contraption it was in its day. As I said in my last blog, this was a HiBoy cover crop seeder for no till planting. A practice started nearly 2 generations ago on our farm.

In this more current picture above is of the Comptroller of Maryland getting his first lesson in tractor driving, pulling a No-till ripper. He came for a visit so we taught him how to drive a tractor. No-till ripping is a conservation practice that breaks up the soil compaction 12+ inches below the surface with  minimal surface soil disturbance. Disturbing the soil surface creates the conditions for erosion. As land stewards, we want to keep our soil intact and in place so we do as little cultivation and tillage as possible.

Integrated Pest Management - yup we do that.
IPM is simple common sense practice. Essentially, you scout a crop looking for pests, whether insects or mildew or disease. IPM means you look for a certain level of disease or pest, also known as a threshold, choosing not to treat the problem if its below a certain threshold, or treating the problem if it reaches a higher threshold. Here my husband Hans is scouting soybeans looking for ear worms and stink bugs both of which attack the soybean pod and damage the crop. When we choose to spray, we may use an organic pesticide, or we may use a synthetic pesticide, it all depends on the level of the problem and the best way to correct the problem. When we do spray, we spray judiciously, using EPA approved organic or synthetic chemicals according to their label and making sure that the proper pre-harvest interval is followed so that no excess pesticide residue from either the organic or synthetic chemicals we use, remains on the crop.

So back to the food fight. We as conventional farmers practice very similarly to organic farmers. It is our goal to be constantly improving our soils through the many practices that are often credited to "organic" farming systems. We adhere to the pre-harvest intervals so that our buyers can trust the foods that we grow do not have unsafe levels of residues. As I've said in numerous blogs, my kids eat what we grow, and they are of utmost importance to me. If I wasn't comfortable feeding them what we grow, then we wouldn't farm the way we do.

There is not a food fight between us as farmers. We have good friends and neighbors who are certified organic. We all get along which is why it amazes me that this choice between organic and conventional is so polarized amongst consumers. As a farmer, I want you to support farmers of all kinds. If you choose organic foods, your supporting a farmer. If you choose conventional foods, your supporting a farmer. As a dietitian, I want you to eat healthy foods and know that you can do so from both organic and conventional. Despite the media frenzy around the study, I don't think this really is a food fight. It is your choice as a consumer and we are fortunate to have as many safe and healthy food choices as we do thanks to all the American farmers, organic and conventional.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Growing Answers: On-Farm Research

Chances are if you drive down any rural roads, or even along some not-so-rural roads, you have seen farm signs identifying fields where particular varieties of crops are grown. Typically, when multiple signs are positioned relatively close together, then this is some type of on-farm research being conducted.

Our family farm has been doing on-farm research for over 50 years. On-farm research benefits us greatly in that while we take chances on new crops, new varieties, new techniques, or new technology which may or may not pan out, research helps us to make strides toward improving our soils, our environment, and the foods we grow. Research is that thirst for knowledge that leads you further down the road toward achieving your goals.

This picture above is from 1964 of my father-in-law operating a HiBoy CoverCrop seeder for No-Till farming. Back in those days, they called it "trash farming" and tested it out on remote fields where their fellow farmers and neighbors wouldn't laugh at them for having "trashy" looking fields. Back then, no-till was rare and unusual. It would take nearly 35 or more years before no-till became more accepted as a standard farming practice.

The following year, in 1965, Farm Journal did a feature on them and their No-Till planting technique. We've pretty much be no-till farming for nearly 50 years, well ahead of the curve of when the technique became "main stream" in farming.

So with that as the historical context of doing on-farm research, our family continues to be active in conducting research to the benefit of our own farm as well as for the larger agricultural industry and ultimately, you the consumer. We partner with research groups, seed companies, and most especially with Cooperative Extension. Many of you have benefited yourselves or perhaps attended a "land-grant university" from which Cooperative Extension heralds. Land-Grant universities were given the mission of teaching practical agriculture, science and engineering and today's Extension service is still critical in researching and disseminating non-biased information and agricultral techniques.

Last week, we hosted a field day with one of the research groups who conducts on- farm research on our farm. Farmers came from throughout the region and even a bus load of farmers from around the country who were in Washington DC visiting the capital decided to get out of the city and onto a farm in Maryland.

The research group provided a detailed assessment of how the varieties trials were going this season and the different performance of the seeds under various controls for fertilizer and other research parameters.

Lots of data. Believe it or not, farmers (or at least some farmers) like data. We use this data in determining what varieties to plant, what varieties are most suitable for our soil types and growing conditions, particularly under irrigation versus dryland crops.

Research varieties are generally pampered to see what their potential is under ideal conditions. These research soybean varieties below are spectacular looking and should yield very well as they reach harvest.

These soybeans below are dryland (non-irrigated) soybeans which are more typical this year because of the drought. A remarkable difference between irrigated and non-irrigated plants.

We even conduct winegrape research in partnership with the University of Maryland. Within our 22 acre vineyard, we have 24 winegrape varieties planted as part of a Northeast regional research effort called NE10-20 testing to see how unusual varieties not typical for the Northeast region grow under our conditions.

So for the past 50+ years, our farm has been growing answers. Answers that have helped us grow better, safer, more abundant, more nutritious foods. Answers that have helped us improve  and preserve our soil. Answers that have helped us improve the water quality for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Our family farm is committed to on-farm research because it improves our knowledge as farmers, enabling us to improve our farm and thereby improving the environment around us and the food on your table. On-Farm research is a win-win for both the farmer and the consumer.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Buy More Green Beans!

Yesterday marked the beginning of green bean harvest on our family farm.

We diversified into growing green beans several years ago as a way to diversify the farming operation. This spreads our risk out over more crops as opposed to "putting all our eggs in one basket" so to speak. We were able to diversify into green bean growing because 1) there's a local market demand; 2) there is a regional distributor who sells the produce throughout the region that we as farmers do not have access to; and 3) and most importantly - we did not have to buy any new equipment or change any equipment in order to add green beans to our list of crops.

Point 3 is really important. Farm equipment is wicked expensive (yes I know that phrase dates me and perhaps even identifies that I'm originally from New England...). Diversification can be costly when you need specialty equipment. Too costly to justify when you consider the crop is a very small portion of the bigger picture. We grow these green beans because we can get them planted and tended throughout the season but we ourselves do not own and would not buy green bean harvesters to bring the crop in. We grow for a company that provides custom harvesting and custom hauling. That works for us.

Thus, while green bean harvest is going on, we're busy getting the combine ready for corn and doing final prep work in the vineyard to begin grape harvest. So the custom harvest and custom hauling also fits our farming operation this time of year when we just finished tomato harvest 2 days ago. Diversification is time consuming and creates a huge time crunch when crops like tomatoes, green beans, and winegrapes all start ripening at the same time. We can only be in so many places at one time.

Our green beans are hauled to a distributor. Sorted and graded and then shipped to the grocery stores in the Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC area. If they do not "grade out" to be for the fresh market, they get sent to a cannery for canned green beans. While I support the concept of "buy local", if you're in the Maryland, Virginia, DC metropolitan area shopping at a grocery store this coming week, chances are if you buy green beans there, they will be from my farm. You are buying "local" without seeing my face.

This is just an overview shot of our green bean field, with corn in the foreground. If you look closely, you will see 3 yellow dots in the field. Those are the custom harvesters. It will take them about 3 days to pick our 50 acres of green beans.

If you go back to my June 30th blog, you will see I griped about picking green beans by hand as a kid. This picture above is my preferred method of picking green beans... fresh from the field but done by machine and I can fill a bag in seconds out of the trailer!

I used the same recipe last night with these fresh green beans that I posted back in June only I substituted kielbasa for ham. I used up the last of my frozen turkey stock from last Thanksgiving and added a hefty teaspoon of Old Bay. It was delicious!

So buy more green beans this week. They're fresh from the farm!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Pigs of Different Colors

And other questions from the county fair...

This entire week, my kids and I have spent at our county 4H fair. We haul our animals down in a livestock trailer and park our camper in our assigned slot and take up housekeeping for the week. We are lucky in that because our county is still very rural, our fair is about 4H, whereas other more urban Maryland counties have fairs whose focus is the midway and demolition derbies. I grew up in 4H. Its an important part of our family and is a significant part of our entire community.

Having said that, as livestock exhibitors, we have animals in barns on the fair grounds that folks walk through looking at the project animals. We call them project animals because that's what they are, 4H projects for the kids who are raising them. My kids raise sheep and pigs. All the 4H families take turns helping in the animal barns and it always amazes me the types of questions we get from folks who walk through our barns.

This week, the most common question we got was "Why are the pigs different colors?" This question came a few times, but always from an adult, not a child. Pigs, like dogs, are different colors based on their breed. There are SO many different breeds of pigs. Here in our barn at the 4H fair, we have quite a few different breeds of pigs being raised by 4H'ers. The purpose of the breed program is for the 4H'ers to raise hogs with the specific characteristics of the breed they choose to raise. Here are just a few examples of what's in our barn. Please note, i took these photos during nap time in the barn so several of the pigs are laying down snoozing in their pens.

Berkshire's have white "points" (leg, face tail). They have a darker meat and some consider it to be a heritage breed. The Berk's we have bred and raised have very good maternal instincts.

 Duroc pigs are one of my kids favorite breeds to raise. They are "red" in color with drooping ears. To be true to the breed, they cannot have any black spots on their body except for the end of the nose.

 Chester Whites are of course, white. Different from other white hogs, they have floppy ears. Look closely and you will see that this picture is of a boar, a male pig used for breeding. Yes, that's the other question we get alot in the hog barn, especially by kids "What are "those"? A lot of learning about the birds and  bees happens when kids learn about livestock!


 Another floppy eared, white pig, Landrace's are what we used to use as the foundation of our farrow (birth) to finish (250#) hog operation.  Landrace were a Danish breed imported to the US. They are known for their length of body along with ham and loin size making them a good production breed.


Obviously the name fits the "color". My daughter raised a Spot pig for the first time this year, mainly because when it was a piglet, she thought it was "cute". I don't really think so now that its 244 pounds...

Hampshires are a very popular breed in our 4H hog barn. Hamps must have a white "belt" across the shoulders extending down the front legs.

Yorkshires are also very popular. This is a picture of a sow, a female pig that has had at least one litter of piglets. I had a woman ask why we called them "white" when actually they are pink. True, their skin is pink but their hair is white.


Blue Butts are cross-bred between Hampshires and Yorkshires. They generally have some dark markings around their hind-quarters, thus the term "blue butt". This type of pig makes up the bulk of our market hogs.

A primer on some pig terms we also got questions on this week at the fair:

Gilt = a female pig that has not delivered a litter of piglets. Can be either used for breeding if it has the qualities to enhance the litter of piglets or for market.

Barrow = a castrated male pig typically sold for market.

Boar = an uncastrated male pig used for breeding. Yes, those are what you can see in the picture of the Chester White boar...

Sow = a mature female pig that has had at least one litter of piglets.

Average litter size? Depends on breed but typically 10 piglets per litter.

What do pigs eat? Pig feed! :Primarily a blend of corn and soybeans. When I was a kid raising pigs we "slopped" our pigs giving them any and all type of food left overs. Nowadays with the desire for lean meat, a pig's diet is prescribed to have the correct weight gain over time and a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates along with vitamins and minerals. Our pigs still get our leftovers. Their favorite is watermelon rinds and corn husks and corn cobs! They also love a treat of apples that have fallen of the tree in our backyard.

My kids LOVE being at the county fair (quite frankly so do I) and sharing what they do with their 4H animal projects. You really should visit a county fair near you and ask the 4H'ers questions. You may just be surprised at what you learn.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

August means tomato harvest

The first couple of weeks in August, our farm is generally running full tilt whereas grain farmers usually get some lag time, vegetable growers do not. We grew 100 acres of Roma tomatoes this year. We started growing tomatoes 10 or so years ago as a means to diversify the farm and to add value to each acre of farmland we farm. Fruits and vegetables are a higher value crop with greater risk than grains. They are also more time consuming to manage and have a shorter growing season than grains.

Our tomatoes are processing tomatoes so they are field grown not staked like most fresh market tomatoes. They are firm and meaty, not juicy. The cannery that we grow for tells us which varieties of Roma's they want us to plant because they use specific varieties for specific products. The variety that goes into stewed tomatoes may be different than the variety that makes their pizza sauce.

They are also mechanically harvested rather than hand picked  like fresh market tomatoes. The harvester is pulled by a tractor. The machine pulls the vines out of the ground, removing the tomatoes onto a conveyor belt while the vines gets dumped back out on the ground. The conveyor belt is on a platform where 4 crew members remove green tomatoes, rocks and other debris. The conveyor then lifts the tomatoes up a shoot and dumps them into a trailer.

Here is a video of the harvest process.


This picture show the harvester "opening" the field, meaning we're just starting the edges so a small cart is used to haul these first few rounds of tomatoes. The field that the cart is driving in is our green bean field. they will be ready later this month.

These white trailers are what runs along side the harvester receiving the tomatoes once the field had been "opened up".

When full, these trailers hold 22 tons of tomatoes. We are currently averaging 44 tons per acre. It is one of our best yielding and highest quality crop ever. The cannery will tell us how many trailer loads of tomatoes they can take each day. Typically, we are picking 18 loads per day. If you do the math, at 22 tons per load, thats nearly 400 tons of tomatoes a day.

These trailers are hauled by truckers up to the cannery. The trailers are flooded with water and then poured out of the trailers so that the tomatoes don't bruise. They are immediately processed into whatever product the cannery is canning that day. I'm happy to tell you that most canned vegetables are really quite fresh. They are processed and canned within 24 hours of leaving the farm. Especially when fruits and vegetables are not in season, canned versions are a nutritious and economical alternative.

We are about half way through our 100 acres as of today. Last year we were recognized by the cannery as one of their top growers. We averaged 36 tons per acre in 2011. Looks like 2012 which be another spectacular tomatoe season!