Friday, April 27, 2012

Finding Our CommonGround

I just returned from a 3 day trip to New York City volunteering for an organization called CommonGround, ( a group of farm women whose mission it is to tell folks about what we do (and don’t do) on our farms. Our goal is to connect the face of America’s farmers with the food you all buy from the grocery store. There is a misperception that the food you find in the grocery store is grown by “corporate” farms. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here is a picture of our “corporation”:

Do you know that 98% of all the farms in the US are family owned & operated?  The bulk of the food you buy at the grocery store, unless it was imported, was grown by an American farm family.

So back to my trip to New York City. Each day was filled radio interviews and deskside meetings with magazine editors, all to promote agriculture and family farms. We got some really interesting questions but three in particular standout to me: During one radio interview, the radio personality asked “So are you the anti-organic agriculture organization?” Oh my goodness no! While I’ve blogged about the similarities between organic agriculture and the way we farm, I believe there is a market for both agricultural systems. My point however, is that studies have not shown that organic farming produces safer or more nutritious foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a review of 50 years worth of data which though limited, did not show a significant difference in nutrient value between organic and conventional foods. The nutrient content of food is derived from the nutrient value and quality of the soil. Sustainability is not based on a cookie-cutter system, nor does one farming system “lay claim” to certain practices as being “theirs”. We de-certified our organic ground specifically because it was not sustainable for our operation. I can’t stress enough – you cannot have a cookie-cutter system that applies across all farms. We do not believe in plowing and the susceptibility to erosion that plowing creates. Soil is our farm’s greatest asset. We need to keep it and build it, not expose it and erode it. For that reason, we no longer farm organically. We do use both organic and synthetic chemicals to control for pests and diseases. To us, that is the measure of sustainability, not whether something is organic or conventional. Its a balance of economics and environment, not an either-or situation.

The other episode that surprised me was when I was at our booth at the Editor’s Showcase, which is a tradeshow for editors. A woman approached our booth and said that she no longer ate meat since she watched a video of inhumane treatment of livestock. I responded by asking “You do know that does not represent the majority of family farmers and is not the “norm” for livestock farmers, right?” She said “No, really?” She honestly appeared to be utterly convinced by a single video that the bad apples in farming were representative of all farmers. I am not going to sit here and tell you that all farmers are doing the right thing, just like not all doctors, lawyers, police, or teachers are doing the right thing. But a few bad apples do not represent the entire profession. It was a message that repeated itself several times. Honestly, these were sincere, well-educated people who seemed to have been totally swayed into believing that what they saw on a video was the standard treatment of farm animals. How sad that folks are so disconnected from the farm that they will believe misinformation about an entire profession.

I feel fortunate to have been asked to attend this outreach effort on behalf of CommonGround. If what I said helped one person understand where their food comes from and the faces behind American farmers, then I will have accomplished a great deal.

Another interesting question that came up frequently – who funds you? CommonGround is funded by checkoff dollars from soybean and corn farmers. What this means is that when a farmer sells corn or soybeans, a portion of the sale price of each bushel goes into a fund that pays for research, marketing programs and promotion of those commodities. So American farmers are funding their own progress and programs. A really recognizable use of checkoff dollars is the “Got Milk” mustache campaign, which is a dairy funded checkoff program. It is the soybean and corn farmer checkoff dollars that support the programs of CommonGround, but the women in the organization are all volunteers. CommonGround is funded by farmers, it is our message that we are communicating, and no one else's message.

To find more information about your food and who grows it, I encourage you to visit CommonGround’s website and watch some of the videos made by other farm women who are also volunteering their time to educate folks about food and farming. It is a great resource to learn about your food.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Every Day is Earth Day On Our Family Farm

My daughter is great about asking questions that lead me to blog. (Remember, she was the one who ask about green french fries?) Today after church she says, "Mom, its Earth Day, why didn't we celebrate?" My response? "Honey, we're farmers, we celebrate Earth Day every day!"

OK, so that sounds rather corny, but really, that's the way it happened.

So let me tell you why our farm celebrates Earth Day every day. As stewards of the land, we have numerous farming practices that preserve and improve our soils and protect our environment.

Let me share some of our conservation efforts with you:

1. Our farm voluntarily took over 100 acres of farm land out of production and put them into conservation practices. These acres are adjacent to woods, ditches, ponds, waterways, and streams. This leads to less sediment and nutrients from getting into the water. It takes sensitive acres and takes them out of production protecting the larger environment around them. Not only does it improve water quality, but it also provides enhanced habitat for wildlife.

2. We installed grassy waterways and buffers larger than required. This enhances filtration of the water through the field to a wider buffer and further limits the likelihood of nutrients reaching the waterway.

3. Part of our farm is across from the town cemetery. The corner of that field is very low ground and not productive. We planted it in wildflowers and warm season grasses which when in bloom, will be free for the picking.

4. We take tissue samples of our crop foliage to determine the nutrient status of the crops (sort of like you getting a blood draw at the doctor's to check your cholesterol and other health indicators). This allows us to prescribe a "diet" for the crop that it needs, no more, no less. It allows us to target certain nutrients the plant needs. While many people take a multi-vitamin "just in case" (which by the way leads to higher nutrients in the water too), we feed a specific diet to our crops based on the results of the plant tissue analysis.

5. I have previously blogged about our new "GreenSeeker" technology. We used this technology recently in our small grains (wheat and barley). The GreenSeeker detects the chlorophyll in the plant tissue and tells us what the nitrogen needs of the plant are. We reduced our nitrogen application by 7-15 pounds per acre using this technology. This application is called "variable rate" meaning the technology senses when less is needed and cuts down on the amount of fertilizer applied as you travel across the field. This may not seem like alot of savings in fertilizer, but when you add it together with the total number of acres, it is quite a savings in the total amount of fertilizer applied.

6. RTK is an auto-steering system that we have in our tractors. The Earth Day advantage of RTK is that it guides our equipment with "sub-inch" accuracy, virtually eliminating all overlap in seed and fertilizer applications and preserving precious resources and enhancing our environmental control systems.

7. Cover crops are probably our largest contribution to land stewardship and therefore Earth Day. These are often called "green manure". We put over 1000 acres under cover in the winter. Cover crops are planted in the fall and are designed to take up any left over nutrients remaining in the soil after the previous crop is harvested. Instead of just leaving the field fallow for the winter, cover crops bind the nutrients and immobilize them in the plant. When we burn down the cover crop in the spring, those nutrients become available to the spring crop that we are currently planting.

8. No - Till is probably our second largest contribution to land stewardship and Mother Earth. 90% of our land is not worked up at all and the other 10% is either in permanent perenial crop such as the vineyard or we use conservation tillage equipment to prepare the soil. Using no-till, we do not work the ground up but plant directly into the plant residue left over from the previous crop. The Earth Day advantage of no-till farming is that you do not expose the soil to the risk of erosion.

So Happy Earth Day! Our family farm is celebrating it by continuing to be good stewards of the land we have, doing all that we can to leave it in better condition for the next generation.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reaching the masses while breaking bread together.

I just got back from a "Chrysalis" retreat. I got to serve as prayer chapel coordinator on the team of women that lead the retreat for teenaged girls. Chrysalis is a non-denominational, worldwide Christian organization that uses retreats, small groups, and gatherings to help youth grow in their Christian faith. Our local Chrysalis community is called the Delmarva Chrysalis & Walk to Emmaus Community. A couple times a year, the community holds retreats at Camp Pecometh, a local United Methodist camp facility. Much of the property is surrounded by farm fields. Adjacent to the bunkhouses where we were staying were green fields of winter wheat. At this stage, the wheat looks like a lush, green, soft carpet across the field.

While sharing three meals a day with about 30 high school and college aged girls, I heard some pretty interesting conversations. But one conversation that kept repeating itself at various meals was: "What was that field of grass growing across from the bunkhouse and why hadn't anyone mowed it since it was getting pretty tall?"

Being the farm advocate that I am, I took the opportunity to explain to those eating at my table that the crop was in fact wheat. That wheat was in many of the food items the kitchen crew was serving us throughout the weekend such as the french toast we had for breakfast, the pasta salad we had for lunch, the lasagna we had for dinner, and particularly the bread we broke for communion. I explained that the wheat had been planted last fall, it had germinated and then stopped growing when the cold weather of winter came (however limited that was this year). Now that the days had turned warm, the wheat was growing and would be producing heads full of seeds very soon. Once the wheat seeds were ripe, the wheat would be harvested in July, possibly June since the season is so early this year.

One girl commented that she was surprised how "scratchy" the wheat was when she went to lay down in it! It looks lush and soft, but has a stiff stalk to support the entire plant and the ripening of the wheat seed. She was surprised when I told her that wheat stalk was what made straw for animal bedding and while it wasn't that big of a deal to walk around the field out of curiosity, all 30 of them on the retreat should not do so or it would do a lot of damage. Sort of like a herd of cattle getting loose and trampling it. It just wouldn't be a good thing. "That crop after all, I said, will be a farmer's income."

"Wow, they didn't know that...", was the response. Amazing but not surprising. People appreciate the beauty that agriculture provides to the landscape but don't consider that the crops grown are the income of a farm family for the entire year.  

Although the weekend had many more signficant highlights for me than this wheat field, it really did dawn on me how much we farmers need to do to teach people about their food and how it is produced. These were not "city" girls but girls from the local Delmarva region, much of which is still very rural. But just because people live in rural areas, does not mean they know or understand agriculture. And although our dinner conversations went onto much more significant topics about faith, I do know that the opportunity to teach about agriculture can be at hand any time, any place.

Who knows besides the seeds of faith that were planted on this Chrysalis girls weekend, I planted a few seeds of agricultural knowledge with the girls I broke bread with. What better way to share knowledge about farming than by breaking bread, made from wheat, with teenagers blessed by God's creation on a Chrysalis retreat?

On that note, I thought I would include a recipe for the first time in my blog. Its a recipe that uses wheat products so I figured that fit well with the topic. I received the recipe from the U.S. Wheat Foods Council, to which I have been newly appointed as a representative of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.  They called the recipe "Devilish Chicken", but since I just wrote about going on a spiritual retreat, I'm changing the name to "Angelically Delish Chicken!"   

 The “secret” ingredient is the seasoned croutons, which are mixed with sautéed onion, garlic, bacon and low-sodium chicken broth, then tucked into a pocket in the chicken breast and baked to a tender perfection.  The recipe calls for pre-made croutons for ease of preparation but feel free to substitute homemade if desired. This recipe can dress up or down – from a special occasion, to a healthy and easy week night meal.  Pair it with a crisp salad and some grilled asparagus and savor the flavor!

Serves 6

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, divided into 6 halves
3 cups seasoned croutons (1 5-ounce bag), divided
4 strips bacon, diced
½ medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces fresh or canned mushrooms (white, wild, or mixed), diced
2 cups low sodium chicken broth, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, optional

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Set a large, ovenproof skillet over medium heat and add the bacon, onion and garlic. Cook until the bacon is crispy and the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.

Break 1 ½ cups croutons into smaller pieces and stir them into the mushroom mixture. Add 1 ½ cups broth, fold it in and remove from stove. Season generously with pepper.

Crush the remaining 1 ½ cups croutons into crumbs in the food processor or blender, or by putting them into a zipper-seal bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.

Cut a wide slit crosswise in the side of each chicken breast to make a big pocket, being careful not to slice the breasts in half. Divide the crouton mixture among the chicken breasts, pushing it into the pockets.

Brush the chicken breasts with mustard. Set the chicken breasts in the (unwashed) skillet and sprinkle them with the crumbs. Roast in the oven for 16-18 minutes (depending on thickness), until they are cooked through.

Set each of the chicken breasts on a plate. Add the remaining ½ cup chicken broth and the butter to the skillet. Warm over medium heat, stirring. Spoon a little of the pan mixture around each chicken breast, sprinkle with chopped parsley, if using, and serve.



Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Growing great wine - Maryland's Wine Country!

You may remember from my earliest blogs or saw the pics in the margins of this blog, that one of the crops we grow is winegrapes. When we sold out of our livestock operation 15 or so years ago, we never thought we'd be grape farmers. But we are. We planted our first 3 acres of grapes 10 years ago as a “test plot” to see if we would be able to manage grapes as part of our farming operation and do so successfully. A vineyard (as with any of our diversification efforts) had to fit within the 2000-acre, multi-crop operation, not be a drain on the farm, be manageable from a human resources perspective, and ultimately be beneficial to the bottomline. Ten years later, our vineyard is 20 acres in size, and includes both vinifera and hybrid grape varieties. They include:

Red Vinifera grapes: Sangiovese, Barbera & Pinotage
White Vinifera grapes: Pinot Gris & Chardonnay
Red hybrid grapes: Chambourcin
White hybrid grapes: Vidal Blanc and Traminette.
 My father-in-law and husband strapping down a load of grapes for delivery.

Each of these varieties was planted at the request of a Maryland winery who was looking for a supplier of a particular variety. The only exception is Pinotage. Pinotage is a South Africa variety which is a cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage grapes (also known as Cinsaut). I spent several years living in Botswana and working in the Ministry of Agriculture in the 4B youth program as well as got to return to the region on a Rotary Group Study Exchange (GSE) Program. I  spent time quite a bit of time in the South Africa wine country of Paarl and Stellenbosch and grew to love Pinotage. We planted this variety in our own vineyard simply out of our own curiosity and it has proven to be a nice addition. This year we are expanding the number of Pinotage vines we have in the ground.

Let me say upfront that I am not a wine-o-phile. See that’s not even the right word. It something like enophile. Either way, I simply enjoy a glass of wine now and then. To me wine is like food, every one likes something different and it’s OK to enjoy what you like, not what some expert says you should like.

Having said that, I tried my hand at wine making and it is not a skill set that I possess. I have dumped more of my own attempts than have consumed my own wine. I blame it on the fact that by the time I am done working in the vineyards and bringing in grapes from harvest, the last thing I really feel like doing is messing around with more grapes in my free time. I will leave it up to those who possess that skill set and buy what I need!
 A cluster of Sangiovese grapes from our vineyard.

So we got involved in grapegrowing as part of our efforts to add value to each acre of land that we farm.  In 2000-2001 when we first starting looking into winegrapes, there were 12 wineries in Maryland and there was a demand for locally grown grapes. We spoke to each of the wineries in existence then and got an idea of what they wanted to use for fermenting wine. We planted our first 3 acres in 2003. At that time, there was about 125 acres of grapes in the Maryland. Since that time, the industry has grown to a current number of 55 wineries and approaching 1000 acres of grapes planted. Granted, it is still not a huge wine industry, but the growth trajectory has been steep over the last 10 years and interest in the vineyards and wineries is still high.

To further diversify our farming operation, in 2009 we started offering custom vineyard work for area vineyard owners.  We formed Schmidt Vineyard Management LLC and have been busy ever since offering vineyard management services to vineyard owners throughout our region of the state. While still an emerging industry, it is exciting to have launched a new business successfully and further diversified what our 3rd generation family farm can do to continue practicing and promoting a variety of agricultural markets.

Yesterday, we started vineyard installations for 2012. We were planting a few additional acres for a vineyard in Caroline County, Maryland who is planning a start up winery in 2013.  We planted 5 acres for the owner last year, are finishing out the back field this year while they draft up their winery design and layout to break ground this fall.  We planted Cabernet Sauvignon. Landot Noir, and Chambourcin for them. Today, we are in Kent County, MD planting Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Muscat for another customer. We have another Kent County customer to expand their vineyard. By the end of this week, we will have planted 10 new vineyard acres and over 13,000 vines.

I decided to try my hand with my new iPad2 and take some video of the crew planting grapes. Here is a video link to our crew planting Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard expansion yesterday so you can see how we install vineyards.

It is my first YouTube video. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I had to go to a free Wi-Fi site about 20 miles away to upload it because my rural internet service tanked on me every time I tried to do it from home! Hope you enjoy a little sip of wine while you watch this short video!
Jennie Schmidt
The Foodie (&Grape) Farmer