Sunday, March 18, 2012

This Week in Maryland Agriculture!

Even though its only mid-March, Maryland agriculture is starting to gear up for the 2012 growing season. Agriculture is Maryland’s largest commercial industry! …. Usually I get the response - “Agriculture? In Maryland?”  It’s true! Employing over 350,000 people, using 2.05 million acres, generating over $17 billion in revenue, Agriculture is a very important economic engine and environmental steward across Maryland’s landscape. Some readers may think of Maryland as being a predominantly urban state, and certainly portions of it are, but our agriculture is vibrant, diverse, and productive.

Here are some important statistics:

14% of Maryland’s workforce are involved in my state’s food and fiber sector:
ü      50% Wholesale or Retail
ü      20% Farm Production
ü      15% Marketing and Processing
ü      12% Agribusiness (tractors, equipment, seed, fertilizer)
ü      3% Farm Supply

Maryland Agriculture is often referred to as “America in Miniature”. This is due to the fact that farms in Maryland are as diverse as is the state’s geography which spans from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachia Plateau and the Allegany Mountains.  From sea level and the coastal plains where large open fields lend themselves to grain production to the Western mountains where pastures and cattle dot the landscape, agriculture is prominent in most of Maryland’s 23 counties. Our urban neighbors get to appreciate the bounty by visiting one of the 135 Farmer’s Markets! Click here for the Maryland's Farmers' Market Directory 

Not to mention the vast number of farm stands that dot the roads across the state where consumers can do Upick or buy fresh from the field produce and meat or dairy products. To search by category visit Maryland's Best Farm Directory Click on the "Find me local" tab, and you can type in the type of farm product you are looking for, your zip code, and search a database of farmers who are selling what you are looking for. Go to the recipes & tips tab, not only will you find some delicious recipes but you can click on the "What's ripe now?" tab and bring up a calendar that will tell you what farm products are in season when. Supporting your local farms provides you with fresh farm products and helps strengthen the local economy. 

From my birds eye view of about a 2-3 mile radius of my farm, here is what took place on local family farms over the last week:

  • My farm neighbors to the west harvested horseradish this past week. Yes, horseradish. Yes, it’s a crop. Yes, a farmer grows horseradish! (sort of like the blog I posted about all the things that agriculture does for football, you may not have considered that a farmer grows that horseradish you put in your shrimp cocktail sauce!)
  • My farm neighbor to the north posted a video on facebook that he was planting hay. We have a good hay market in this region between folks who have a few horses for pleasure to those who race horses at the Delaware tracks.
  • My farm neighbors to the north west have an organic grain and vegetable farm and run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). They began spring plowing this week. They are nurturing vegetable seedlings and getting ready for the CSA & Farmer’s Market season.
  • My farm neighbors to the east are tree & nursery farmers. Yup, all those plants you landscape with? A farmer grew them! They were preparing ground for new tree seedlings and digging trees that are ready for sale to be used for landscaping around homes and businesses.
  • My neighbors to the southeast are dairy farmers. Although I didn’t check with them before I wrote this, I’m pretty sure they were busy milking cows twice a day in addition to preparing ground for spring crops.
  • My farm neighbors to the south are fruit and vegetable farmers. They are busy pruning fruit trees, mulching berry patches, nurturing vegetable seedlings in the greenhouse, and preparing ground for spring crops.
  • On our farm, we are busy pruning the vineyard expecting an early season because of the warm winter we have had. We also visited several vineyard sites for owners who have hired our vineyard management company to plant grape vines for them this spring. (Yes, Maryland has a winegrape industry! I promise to blog about that in the near future). We applied potash to fields that our soil tests told us were low in potassium.  We serviced equipment that will need to be ready for spring planting including trying to figure out how to operate the “Green Seeker” I blogged about in the “Good Ole’ Days”. We did “vertical tillage” which is a means of working the ground without actually turning the ground over, using what’s called a “no-till ripper”. My goal is to figure out how to use my video camera and be able to upload some of these activities as we get busy into spring farm work.

That's just what happened in my little corner of the state. So as you can see, Maryland agriculture is diverse. We have access to a large urban market in the Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia area, all of which are equal distance from our farm. Farming in Maryland is critical to the economy, critical to the environment, and critical to the consumers in this region who want fresh, local food choices. So when people say “agriculture”, Maryland may not be the first state that comes to mind, but it is an important part of our state’s fabric and vibrancy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Similarities of Organic & Traditional Farming

I love it when I’m struggling for a blog topic and the media hands me something on the morning news. This morning Tony Pann, a meteorologist on the Baltimore station WBAL TV Channel 11 was responding to an interview by fellow meteorologist Ava Marie at a restaurant that was serving “local, organic, and sustainable” menu items. When the Ava tossed it back to the station for the morning forecast, Tony said “I’m a big fan of organic… people are so used to processed foods when you taste the organic, it tastes completely different in my book.” Below is the link to the video clip.

One of the most common questions I get is “what is the difference between organic and conventional foods?” To answer that, I need to explain the difference between organic and traditional farming methods, what some call “conventional” and we have farmed both ways so I am speaking from experience.

The USDA consumer's guide explains organic foods as “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”  That describes our farm perfectly, which is not organic, but rather a 3rd-generation, traditional family farm.

Organic farming includes practices such as crop rotation, fertilizer in the form of animal manure or “green manure” in the form of nitrogen containing plants, integrated pest management, mechanical cultivation, and natural or biological pesticides. Yes, pesticides. Organic does not mean chemical free. It means choosing to apply pesticides from an approved list called the OMRI list (Organic Materials Review Institute). This list of chemicals are naturally or biologically-based pesticides. There are over 2,300 pesticides listed with OMRI as approved for organic agriculture. Sulfur, copper, and Bt are all examples of organic pesticides. We use all 3 of these chemicals but are not organic farmers. Oxidate is a form of peroxide which is also organic and which we use as a fungicide in our vineyard to treat mildew. Some people will call these “soft” chemicals, other farmers will say they only use “natural” chemicals. Either way, their purpose is the same: to treat or prevent a pest from destroying the crop.

Our traditional family farm includes all those same practices. We do however, choose to use some synthetic chemicals as well as some organic ones. We base that choice on what the problem is we are trying to treat, how far away from harvest we are, how effective our choices are, and what the economic impact of our choice is going to be. That is why we use A LOT of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM means we scout our crops frequently, determine what pests if any exist, determine if there is a economic reason to address the pest, determine if there is a cultural practice such as cultivating or leaf pulling that will help alleviate the pest pressure, and determine what our options are if we need to spray something. We give much thought to this process. Why? Because our family eats what we grow in addition to earning a living from the land. I’m not going to serve something to my kids that isn’t safe. 

Spraying is something we do to bring quality, safe, and healthy foods to harvest using BOTH organic and synthetic chemicals as the situation warrants. We do not apply any chemicals that are not needed.

In some instances, synthetic chemicals are less toxic than their organic equivalents. In other cases, organic chemicals are less toxic than synthetics. With pyrethrins which is an organic insecticide derived from chrysanthemum plants and their synthetic pyrethroid counterparts, they are equal. As Paracelsus said in the 16th century “All substances are poisons, there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” Essentially, the dose makes the poison.

So let’s look at the nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a systematic review in 2010 which looked at data published between 1958 and 2008. That’s 50 years worth of data. Of the studies that were evaluated, 55 were determined to be of satisfactory quality in terms of the way the research was conducted. These 55 studies showed no significant difference in vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and phenolic compounds. The authors concluded that there was no difference in the nutritional quality of organic foods over conventional foods. The two were essentially equal. (Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92:203-10)

So where am I going with this? Tony Pann’s comments this morning made me think about the perception of organic and traditional foods. He used the term “processed” but processing is an entirely different subject.

I know that the way I raise the crops I grow on our family farm are safe and nutritious. You as the consumer have the wonderful choice of abundant foods whether organic or traditional. I applaud you if you choose organic. You are supporting a family farmer. I applaud you if you choose traditional. You are supporting a family farmer. But understand that both farming methods that are used to grow food are safe because they, like me, are feeding it to our families. I as a farmer, have the consumer’s health in mind because we, as farmers, are consumers too.

So maybe some day Ava Marie will do her morning broadcast from my family farm and Tony Pann will have a positive comment to say about what this Maryland farm family is doing to grow healthy food for Marylanders.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Back in the Good Ole' Days

There’s a school of thought being passed around that farmers need to go back to the “good ole’ days”. You know, back when times were simpler and somehow farming was “better”. There’s a perception that farming in the "good ole' days" was some how more “authentic” than on today’s family farms.

If you think that family farms should go back in time, let’s apply this same logic to everyone. This being 2012, I want you to think about this –

Would you go back to a 1940’s or 50’s vehicle? With no air conditioning? No GPS? No CD player? Only an AM radio? No seatbelts? Do you remember that the miles per gallon of those vehicles was in the SINGLE DIGITS?

How about at home? Would you go back to no microwave? No central air conditioning? No dishwashers?  No clothes dryers? Have you seen a picture of a 1950’s style washing machine? How about a party-line phone? (After all, aren’t Facebook and Twitter the same thing?)

Let’s look at your hourly wage…. in 1950, the hourly wage was $0.75…. OMG! Still think that going back is a good idea?

How about medicine? Want to consider where you would be without today’s most advanced medical technology? Would you ask your doctor to only prescribe medicines or apply medical knowledge that was available to us then?

If your answer is no, then why would you think that family farms should go backwards?

Here is something else to consider:

In 1950, farms averaged 37 bushels of corn per acre. Our family farm averages 165 bushels per acre in a typical year.

In 1950, farms averaged 18 bushels of soybeans per acre. Our family farm averages 55 bushels per acre in a typical year.

In 1950, farms produced enough food to provide for only 25 people. Today, our family farm produces enough food to feed 155 people.

On today’s family farms, we are as technologically advanced as you are in your workplace. Our tractors and equipment are guided by computers and GPS and loaded with monitors to detect nuances within each and every field that we farm. We have yield monitors that show us where we have variations in our fields so that we can prescribe a precise “diet” to improve the health of the field where it is lacking, or can diagnose a problem.  Today, we no-till our farm, meaning we do not turnover our soil before we plant. In the 1950’s, we mold-board plowed, a method that causes much erosion and run-off. Our soils are in better condition now with our current technology and farming practices than they were in the 1950’s. By the way, we actually started no-till farming in the 1960's, back then we called it "trash farming". This year, we will be using “Green-Seeker” technology which allows us to detect the amount of chlorophyll in our crops  (the green I blogged about in Why are my fries green?)  and apply only what nutrients are needed to ensure the healthiest crop. In short, we have the safest and healthiest food choices in this country because we family farmers in the USA are highly educated, are professionals at what we do, and adapt to the latest technology that makes our family farms sustainable for this and future generations.

By the way, did you know that 98% of American farms today are just like us? Owned by families working to grow your food, fiber, and fuel.

Below are some pictures from our farm. I call them "then" and "now" pictures. You will see a vast difference between the 1950’s and the current equipment and practices.

What I want you to think about carefully is if it is realistic to expect family farms to return to old technology and old practices? Are you willing to return to old technology and old practices within your household or within your industry? Think about it and post comments. I’d love to understand this better. Thanks for listening.

Our combine transferring soybeans to the trailer
Our 1953 Hi-boy used to seed cover crop. This contraption would drive over the top of the corn you see on the left of the picture and drill seed into the ground below.

My father-in-law filling a 2 row seeder by shovel.
My husband filling a 77-row seeder.