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.