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!