Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a "Celebration of Sustainable Agriculture" at a local grain farm. The farm was highlighting its newest venture into being more sustainable - an installation of solar panels to generate electricity.

The farm, located on the upper eastern hore do Maryland, also puts great effort into conservation practices, such as no-till and limited-tillage techniques. They use soil testing and precision agriculture (GPS) to monitor and precisely apply necessary nutrients to their crops. And, surprising to many people who have a certain picture of "sustainable" in their minds, they use genetically enhanced seeds for their grain crops.

I was excited to see that this large, well-respected farm was attempting to redefine "sustainable." Or perhaps I should say they are bringing it back to its traditional definition.

The dictionary defines sustainable as "able to be maintained at a certain rate or level."

USDA defines sustainable AGRICULTURE a little more specifically as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

But the common, public definiton is much different. Consumers tend to associate "sustainable" with some or all of the following:
  • Organic
  • Non-GE or non -GMO
  • Small farms
  • Local

While many of those items can be part of a sustainable farm or agriculture business, I just want to emphasize that conventional and traditional, yes, even large farms, are also operating in a sustainable way.

Because, at least to me, the most important part of sustainable is that it is ongoing. We want our farm to still be operating for the generations yet to come. That means we have to carefully manage our soil, our crops, and above all, our money. Farming is a business, and in order for us to keep our land in agricultural production, we do have to be profitable. (At least monst years. Lord knows Drought-Pocolypse 2012 was a challenge.)

Since we purchased our farm in 2007, we've made efforts to keep our farm as sustainable as possible. We use no-till techniques and cover crops when we can to protect our soil from erosion. We use precision technology and genetically enhanced seed to target our chemical and fertilizer applications, making sure we get exactly what we need, exactly where we need it (and with very limited waste).  This fall, we installed an irrigation system with hopes of keeping our farm more profitable. 

I encourage you to find out what the farms in your area are doing to be a "sustainable" farm. I think you might be surprised!

As always, please leave any questions or replies in the comments, or tweet me @carabecca. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Homemade Crock-Pot Applesauce

I love applesauce. It’s definitely in my top ten list of favorite foods – somewhere between soup of all kinds and pasta.
And while I am perfectly happy to grab a container of Mott’s and throw it in my lunchbox, nothing can truly compare to the deliciousness of homemade applesauce.
Here’s the main problem with homemade applesauce, though: the stirring. Most recipes call for you to SLOWLY cook the apples on the stovetop, stirring frequently to make sure nothing burns.
Right. Like I have the time (or, let’s be honest, the patience) for that.
Luckily, a few years ago, a friend introduced me to the wonders of crock-pot applesauce.
O. M. G. So easy, so good.
The most difficult part is peeling and coring the apples. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I made applesauce for three different meals, and peeled, cored, and chunked 35 apples. My poor little cramping fingers were very displeased.
Which is why I’m asking for one of these bad boys for Christmas:

Here’s hoping that fancy-schmancy apple peeler is under my tree come Christmas morning. Hopefully Santa reads the blog!
So, long story short, here’s the recipe for fabulous homemade applesauce:
Homemade Crock-Pot Applesauce
8-10 apples (any kind will do – I prefer a combo of a few different varieties – try Honeycrisp, MacIntosh, and Galas for a good blend)
1/4 cup of water
Cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar/sweetener to taste
Peel, core, and rough chop your apples. Half-way through, wish desperately for a fancy apple peeler.
Throw all the apples in your Crock-Pot. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup water.
Cook on LOW for at least 8 hours. I normally cook mine overnight.
Mash apples in the Crock-Pot with a potato masher. They should mash pretty easily.
Add vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar/sweetener to taste. Most of the time I leave out the sugar, but that’s totally up to you!
Enjoy! My favorite way to eat it is hot, right out of the Crock-Pot. Perfect for breakfast. Also super yummy cold, and keeps nicely in the fridge for about a week.

Do you have a favorite slow cooker recipe? Or a special apple dish that you just love? Leave a link or description in the comments! I’d love to try some new ones.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Father + Son

You know what would fix most of America's problems?
More dads like this one.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Farmer’s Thoughts on GM

I’ve given a lot of thought to the current biotechnology battle happening in California over the labeling of genetically-modified (GM) foods.On Election Day Californians will be voting YES or NO on Prop 37, which would require mandatory labeling of any food product that contains GM ingredients.

Why label?

I really have two different sets of thoughts swirling around my head on the topic. The first goes to the question of, “Is labeling necessary?” Now, I believe that you should eat whatever food you think is right for your family. Anyone inspecting my freezer and pantry might wonder why a farmer, a member of a group that generally supports all types of commercially grown food products, has no chicken in her house.

I know, Delmarva readers, shame on me! But it’s really a very simple answer – my husband hunts, so we have the freezer stocked with fresh venison, and one of our friends raises beef cows, so we have eighty pounds of beef in our freezer as well. Quite frankly, we don’t have room in the house for any more meat.

Currently, we have traditionally grown mushrooms sharing a crisper with organic spinach. Why? Well, those two particular items looked the best the last time I went grocery shopping. We also have a fifty pound bag of sweet potatoes in our pantry (and, oddly enough, a huge box of them in our dining room). We had a bumper crop of sweet potatoes from our own garden this year. They are definitely the most local item in the house, grown about fifty feet from my front door.

What’s my point? Eat what you like. I have absolute faith that any GM products I buy are safe and healthy for my family. But if you are uncomfortable with that statement, you have a choice! If you are trying to avoid GM foods, just buy products with the “USDA-Certified Organic” label. Using that organic label means that the food was grown without any GM.

So why, California, would you want to set up a separate system for GM labeling, when that designation is already included in the current organic labeling system? I think it raises a good question. Since a labeling system is already in place, does anyone really benefit? Or is this another way to attack what many activists have labeled “Big Ag”?

Why GM?

But why do farmers use GM products in the first place? I can’t speak for every farmer in the country, but I can certainly speak for my family.

One of the biggest benefits of GM crops is that we are able to be very selective with the pesticides and herbicides we use. If some insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant traits were not already present in the seed we plant, we would have to apply chemicals to our fields more often in order to achieve the same results. Not only is this more costly to the farmer (and leads to more expensive food in the grocery store), but limiting our chemical use is better for our environment as well.

Another benefit is that GM crops have helped us increase our yields. We lose fewer crops to insects and disease than we may have ten or fifteen years ago, because some of the GM traits in our crops protect against those blights.

What does that mean for everyone else? It means that biotechnology helps farmers keep food costs down – which translate to the low prices you are able to enjoy at your local grocery.

What happens now?

Honestly? I don’t know! I’m not sure anyone knows for sure. I do know that Californians have a big decision to make. It’s my opinion that requiring GM labeling is redundant, as the USDA Organic label already addresses that aspect of how crops are grown. I also believe that it will be a costly decision, with the bulk of the cost being paid by the end consumer at the grocery store.

Remember, this is just my opinion, There are a ton of opinions on the topic. I encourage you to do your own research – looking for reputable, non-biased research firms that have been studying GM crops for decades now. Agriculture has a track record of adopting new technologies based on sound science. The way we do things has definitely changed from the farms of 50 years ago, but our commitment to doing what is right for our families and the families we feed remains as strong as ever.

I want to leave you with this great snapshot of the benefits of biotechnology, put together by an organization I am proud to be a part of, CommonGround.

Biotech infograph

Friday, October 5, 2012

Continuing the Tradition

Last week, I attended our county’s annual Farm Bureau banquet, where my family was honored as the Kent County Farm Family of the Year.

bullock family

The introduction the Farm Bureau leaders gave included some interesting info – they mentioned that this side of my family has been farming in our county since the early 1900s. My research into census records list my great-grandfather as living on the same street (and likely the same block) as my childhood home. Further digging into our history revealed that my ancestors identified themselves as “farmers” going back at least 150 years. If that’s not a tradition of farming, I don’t know what is.

Going through all this history made me think about all the changes to the farming industry over the last several decades. Back in 1960, when my grandparents were farming, the average US farmer could feed 26 people. Now, our farm is feeding six times that. And since 85% of Americans are at least two generations removed from the farm, it’s going to be necessary in the next few decades to continue increasing the number of people each farmer can feed.

We are able to feed more people because of huge jumps in technology and education. Thanks to bigger, more efficient equipment, and selective seed breeding programs, farmers are able to produce more crops on less land. Take corn, for example. According to numbers from the USDA Census of Ag, farmers today are producing about five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s. And they are growing that corn on 20 percent less land!*

Many members of the current generation of my family are still farming. My Uncle “M” operates a cattle and grain farm, following closely in the footsteps of my grandfather. My Uncle “R” had a poultry operation until his passing just a couple of years ago. My father no longer farms, but he has been an agri-science teacher and FFA advisor for at our local high school for 30 years.

And there are a few farmers in the younger generation, too. My cousin “A” married into a local farm family with a dairy, poultry, and grain operation. Her youngest sister “M” raises and shows market lambs and hogs. My youngest sister, Amber, is preparing to graduate this winter with a degree in AgBusiness. She probably won’t be farming, per se, but wants a career in agriculture.

And then there’s me. Not only is my job as an ag lender directly involved with the farming community, but I also married a farmer. We own a small grain farm just five short miles from what most of my father’s family would consider the “home farm.”

Last, we have our youngest generation – the current great-grandchildren. Will they continue the farming tradition? It’s too early to tell.

Though based on his current fascination with all things tractors and farming, odds are pretty good that my kid will be a farmer.


*As found on

Friday, August 3, 2012

Farm Women Friday: Food Safety Edition

We’re going to take a quick break in our Farm Women Fridays series to talk about all the wonderful produce available right now, and how you can make sure you’re eating safe food.

Christy Vanderwende of Farmer Dan’s Daughter and I gave a quick demonstration at the Delaware State Fair last week, highlighting some of our best Delaware produce and some great safety tips.

(Please forgive the sound quality. When recording at the state fair, you tend to pick up a lot of background noise – our voices go in and out sometimes).

Cara + Christy, Delaware State Fair, 2012

Here’s a few of the tips we talk about:

  • Wash your hands! It’s not just the fruits + veggies that could be dirty, your hands probably have some gunk on them too. If you’re cutting up veggies + meats, make sure you wash your hands in between foods.
  • Wash your produce! A quick rinse or a light scrub under running water is all you need. The running water provides an abrasive action that works better than just soaking veggies. Don’t use soap (it’s hard to remove from many fruits + veggies. Remember, no matter what type of produce you buy, you still need to wash it, if nothing else to get rid of germs from all the other people that touched it before you.
  • Clean your utensils and your surfaces. Ideally, you’d use a different cutting board for meats than for veggies, but washing your board completely before switching works too.
  • Once your fruit or veggies are cut, make sure you stick them in the fridge. Most will last at least a couple of days cut up. Some will last much longer – carrots always seem to last forever in my fridge.

Most of this is common sense, I know, but I also know that these are the things that I tend to let slide when I get a little busy. Bottom line? Wash everything, even yourself.


Christy and I both volunteer with CommonGround. We’re a group of farm women who are promoting agriculture and conversations between the people who grow food and the people who buy it. We want to be a direct resource for you any time you have questions about farming or your food. Ask us anything! You can reach Christy at her blog, and on twitter @LilWagonChristy. And of course, you can always leave a comment for me here on this post, or on my twitter page, @carabecca.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Now You Know

Ever wondered what one bushel per acre corn looks like? Or how the drought, the worst one since 1988, is affecting farmers and their crops?

Well, now you know.

Our crop insurance adjuster gave us his verdict today, and no, that is not a typo. Our corn has actually yielded ONE bushel/acre. To compare, last year our corn yielded 160 bushels/acre. P is mowing down corn as I speak. At least we’ll get a head start on getting an irrigation system in for next year.

So, yeah, the drought’s been pretty bad over here in Delaware. And if we don’t get some rain soon, the soybeans may go the same way.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Farm Women Fridays: Unexpected Farmer

Our Farm Woman this week, Ashley Bonk, never really expected to be farming. “My father tilled about 2500 acres, and still does, but I never really had much involvement with the farm other than growing up around it.” I sat down with Ashley and her two daughters recently to talk about her family’s farm operation.

I’ve been lucky enough to know Ashley since we were in high school. We even roomed together one year at the University of Delaware, where Ashley was pursuing a teaching degree. Ashley married her husband, Brandon, in 2008. At that time, Brandon had been farming on his own for about a year. Ashley quickly fell into the farming business. At first, she just helped out with little things when she wasn’t teaching at a local elementary school. When her second daughter was born last year, she decided to leave the teaching profession and be a full-time mom and farm wife. She says, “the best part of farming for me is really being able to work with Brandon and be with my girls.”

“I do all the paperwork and book-keeping, and whatever else Brandon needs me to do,” she says. Most days in the summer she can be found checking on irrigation systems or helping to move from one field to the next. She describes herself as a “typical farm wife,” responsible for the odds and ends of farming, from transportation to providing meals during the harvest season.

Ashley says that one of the biggest misconceptions about farming is the time it takes to do a good job. “I never really understood what a huge time commitment farming was until I actually did it,” she tells me. When it’s time to plant or harvest or till, it has to be done right away. Farming is certainly a time-sensitive industry.

The Bonks till 2500 acres in central Delaware. Most of their land is irrigated, which is certainly a blessing during this year’s drought. They are grain farmers – growing corn, wheat, and soybeans. This year, they’ve also had the opportunity to grow some potatoes with another local farmer. Ashley has been helping to “grade” the potatoes – determining the quality of the crop once it’s harvested.

“The potatoes have been really interesting,” says Ashley. “I like the idea that we’re growing something that people are eating directly, verses our grains, which are mostly going to the chicken industry as feed.” Going to the Delaware State Fair this weekend? You might be sampling some of the Bonks’ potatoes – a local vendor has purchased some of their potatoes to use for French fries in their concession stand.

“We’re always trying to do the best job we can, and trying to improve,” she tells me. They strive to stay current with technology and science. They have even gotten involved with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension research projects in some of their fields. The family was also recently featured as part of local television station WBOC’s “Honoring Delmarva Farmers” segment. You can see that clip here.

Wanting to learn more about the industry she found herself in, Ashley signed up for Annie’s Project, a program targeting farm women to help them understand the business of farming and make decisions for their family farm. “I really enjoyed the program,” she says. “Not just the information, but getting to meet other farm women and making connections within this industry.” She learned how to get involved on both her farm and in the farming community, and came away with many new resources, contacts, and a greater appreciation for the work her family is doing.

“I remember always being surprised as a teacher that most children really didn’t know much about their food. That’s something I’d like to get back into someday – teaching kids about farming and agriculture.” The combo certainly fits well into Ashley’s areas of expertise.

“I want people to think about the families that are behind the food they are eating, and remember that it’s mostly family farms, not ‘factories’.”

Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Farm Women Fridays: Drink Milk!

Allow me to introduce you to an old family friend (and my former boss), Charmayne Busker.

Along with her son and daughter, Charmayne runs a dairy farm in Kent County, DE. They are currently milking 160 cows, plus have 140 additional calves and heifers that aren’t producing milk right now.

How much milk do 160 cows produce? They actually average 2500 gallons per cow, per year. That means Charmayne’s farm is responsible for supplying 400,000 gallons of milk each year.

Each gallon of milk weighs 8.8 pounds. So wrap your head around this: her one farm is producing 1,760 TONS of milk each year.

(I had to check those numbers four times. Seems crazy, right? But I promise it’s accurate.)

The family tills 400 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and some small grains. In contrast to most of the other grain farmers we’ve met, three-fourths of their crops go directly towards feeding their cows. The rest is just sold as a cash crop.

The family also owns and operates five chicken houses, though Charmayne says she mostly tries to stay away from them. Her kids run that part of the farm operation on their own. Charmayne told me, “I basically have no responsibility in the chicken houses, and not much knowledge about them either. I prefer the cows!”

That’s not too surprising. Charmayne grew up on a dairy farm, and her late husband, Chuck, spent time on his grandfather’s dairy farm in his youth. In 1979, they purchased the family’s current farm, bringing along a few cows that they had raised as 4-H projects. Charmayne tells me they started out milking about 30 cows, and then just slowly grew from there.

In 2005, they built a new milking parlor in which the cows are brought in on an elevated surface, putting the milking equipment at eye level. “The parlor allows for much better management,” Charmayne tells me. “We can see more of what’s going on with the cows, spot any problems more easily, and can even milk more cows in the same amount of time.”

With their new system, the fresh milk is never exposed to air. The milk runs straight from the cow, through the milkers, into a stainless steel pipeline which immediately cools the milk to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. The milk then travels down into a 3,000 gallon cooling tank. A refrigerated milk truck picks up the milk every other day and takes it right to the dairy. The milk is very well protected from any outside influences.

Caring for Our Cows

“I’ve always loved working with cows,” Charmayne says. “There’s a great level of pride in raising a calf from birth and seeing her turn into a grown cow.” She thinks most dairy farmers would agree. “All the things you’re doing for your pets – keeping them cool, providing fresh food and water – we’re doing for our cows.”

They even have a nutrition consultant! A local nutritionist visits the farm periodically to make sure the cows are getting a good balanced diet, and makes suggestions on things to add to their feed. They have a varied diet, including surprises like cotton seed, brewers’ grain, and even dry citrus pulp in addition to the more typical silage, corn, and soybean meal.

“Every mouthful they get is as nutritionally complete as we can make it,” Charmayne explains.

Weather extremes can be tough on the cows. In the winter, for example, the calves are snug in their hutches, but Charmayne and her family have to monitor their water buckets to keep them from freezing. “Hot weather is worse,” she tells me. “Cows really dislike the heat.” She keeps the cows cool by using overhead misters and a multitude of fans in the barns. They also switch to sand for bedding instead of straw. “The sand keeps them much cooler in the summer, just as the straw does a great job keeping everybody warm in the winter.”

Even though they aren’t producing any milk yet, it’s important to keep the baby calves as healthy as possible. Access to fresh water and good, nutritious feed is their best defense against any illnesses.

Meds and Milk

But what if the cows do get sick? “There is no routine feeding of antibiotics, not even for the calves. We only give medicine in case of an illness, just like you would take your child to the doctor if they got an ear infection,” explains Charmayne.

And in mature, milking cows, there’s absolutely no tolerance for antibiotics in their systems. “If a cow is sick, we’ll give her medicine, but we milk that cow separately and her milk never enters our tanks,” she tells me. If antibiotics were found in the milk – it’s tested every time, with an extremely sophisticated test – then that entire 3,000 gallons of milk is considered contaminated and won’t be shipped. “It’s a big liability for dairy farmers, so we’re very careful.”

Why the big fuss about antibiotics in milk? “Well, some people are allergic to certain antibiotics, like penicillin,” Charmayne explains. “Or if a tank of milk is going to be made into cheese, even a low dose of antibiotics can mess with that process.”

Not to mention, animal medicines are expensive. They don’t overuse any antibiotics, and they are only using ones specifically approved for dairy cattle.

Raw Milk

Another hot dairy topic is raw, or unpasteurized, milk. What’s Charmayne’s opinion on the topic?

Charmayne says, “I feel like we do a really good job out on our farm, and I’m not the least bit concerned about drinking our milk, straight from the tank.” And in fact, they do drink their own milk (and always have).

The problem, really, with unpasteurized milk is that it has a very short shelf life – really only 2-3 days of freshness before the milk will start to sour. Pasteurization allows for the convenience of an extended shelf life, meaning you and I can buy our milk in a grocery store and not have to drink it all on the day of purchase. That’s certainly something to keep in mind if you do want to find a farm that will sell you raw milk – drink it right away for the best experience.

Charmayne does think the raw milk tastes different, which she explains is because of the fat content. “Here at our farm, our milk is 3.9% butterfat. To compare, whole milk is only 3.2%, so you are seeing a bit of difference there.”

We’re Going to Cow Camp

Charmayne is one of those farmers whom everyone seems to know and respect. She’s not just a farmer; she’s an active member of the farming community. Many area farmers know her from her 30+ years with our local Farm Credit, where she worked as a loan officer and a manager. But in the dairy world around here, she may be best known for Cow Camp.

Charmayne and her family have always been active participants in and supporters of local 4-H groups. In the 1980’s, Charmayne and Chuck hosted a one-day fitting and showmanship class at their farm for young 4-Hers with dairy projects. It lasted only a couple of years, but they brought the idea back in 2002.

“We now hold a weekend mini-camp for any 4-Her who is interested, both those who currently have cows and those kids that want to gain a little more experience with large animals,” Charmayne explains. “Campers bring their calves out to the fair and we teach the kids not only how to show, but really how to care for their animal.”

They hold workshops that focus on different aspects of dairy education. This year, they will have both a veterinarian and a dairy nutritionist on hand. They are also going to work with the kids on their very own dairy promotion videos. They round the weekend out with a mini dairy show and a family picnic.

If it seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But the family has plenty of help. “There are maybe twenty dairy farms left in Delaware, and we’re a very close-knit group.” Many of them have become life-long friends, and she always has plenty of help when she needs it.

Family First

Being a dairy farmer is probably one of the toughest jobs in agriculture. There are no lazy mornings, no vacation days, and no calling out sick. The cows are milked twice a day, every day. Of course, there are some redeeming qualities, too.

“The best thing about being on the farm is being able to work with my kids, and to see them doing something they really enjoy. This was my husband’s dream, and I think he’d be pretty proud of how they’ve stepped up.”

Charmayne had one last piece of wisdom for us, “Drink milk!”



Want to see a little more about where your milk comes from? Check out this video from the MidAtlantic Dairy Association.


Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Recipe: Squash Fritters

It has recently come to my attention that not everyone knows about the deliciousness that is squash fritters. Is this a regional thing like pretzel salad and scrapple?

(If you’re unfamiliar with pretzel salad or scrapple, well, you aren’t from around here, now are ya?)

I knew I had to share this summer treat. You need these in your life.

First, you’re going to want to slice up some lovely summer squash from your garden.

No garden? WHAT? Ok, head down to the farmers’ market and pick up some yellow squash. Nothing too big; you want slices that are no bigger than 2 inches in diameter for the best fritters.

Now dump those squash into a big old bowl of homemade pancake batter. And by homemade, I mean Aunt Jemima. If you’re using mix, make sure it’s the one where you have to add eggs + oil, not the “ready-to-go” mixes. It’s just not the same.

Or if you’re feeling all Suzy Homemaker, please feel free to make your batter from scratch. Just know that somewhere, some working mom of a two-year-old hates you just a little bit.

Not me, of course. I would never!

Make sure they’re good and coated, then add them one by one to a frying pan full of hot vegetable oil (okay, not full – like half an inch). No, I don’t have any idea what temperature that oil is. Drop a bit of batter in the pan; if it sizzles, you’re good.

Let ‘em fry up until you can see the sides start to turn golden brown, then flip ‘em. I like to use a slotted spoon, but you feel free to use whatever you’d like, so long as you don’t use your fingers. That oil will burn you.

Ask me how I know.

Cook them for just a few more minutes on the other side, then set your fritters on a paper towel to drain off the excess oil.

Now, this next step is important. Immediately sprinkle with salt or Old Bay. I like salt. My husband likes Old Bay. Both are delicious.

Now just enjoy!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Farm Women Friday: Part of the Family Business

Welcome again to Farm Women Friday!
This week, I’m introducing you to a young woman who is an integral part of her family’s farm operation. I first remember meeting Megan Bishop in high school FFA, though my mother would tell you we met way before that: Megan and my middle sister attended preschool together.

(Yes, you could say we’re from a small town. Everyone really does know everyone else around here.)

Megan and I sat down in the middle of a field (no, really!) and had a nice chat about farming, family, and building a business.

Joining the Family Business

Megan is another farm woman who was born into agriculture. She grew up working in her family’s operation part-time through high school and college, though her duties have evolved over time. Her father is contracted with a local chemical + fertilizer company to spray other farmers’ fields. Megan started working with that company to delivery chemicals and to do a bit of field scouting as well.

A field scout is employed by a farmer or grower to physically walk and monitor their fields for problems such as insects, weeds, diseases, or nutrient deficiencies. They serve as an extra set of eyes for the farmer to identify problems early.

Megan also took a little bit of time away from the family farm to work with the local extension office, but she found she didn’t really like working all day behind a desk, and knew she would have to get back out on the farm. “I have more time with my daughter working on the farm than I would if I had a desk job somewhere, and I really like that.”

When she came back, the family knew they’d have to find an additional avenue of farming to bring her back into the fold. The operation purchased a variable-rate spreader, which became Megan’s main job. She applies lime and fertilizer on a custom basis for other area farmers, as well as the Bishops’ fields.

“We’ve always been good at finding extra jobs,” Megan tells me. They understand that in order to stay in business, they have to diversify. The bulk of the family’s operation is their own crops – Megan and her father are currently tilling about 2800 acres. Most of their “extra” comes in the form of custom jobs – Megan’s father still sprays chemicals for the local supplier; Megan runs the spreader; and they even started doing custom straw baling. They come in and bale the fields after the wheat has been harvested, and mushroom companies up in Pennsylvania come and get the large bales of straw for use in their operations.

They actually started the straw work as a job for Megan’s younger sister Logan, who has since taken a full-time job off the farm (but still in agriculture). Logan still helps out with the farming as much as she can, as she was quick to point out from behind the work truck as we talked.

“We also chop silage for other farmers, and do as much custom work as we can,” Megan explains. “Custom” is just the farm way of saying, “doing work for someone else.” It takes some of the risk out of farming. “We try to have other operations to pull from, in case we have a bad year with our own crops.”

High-Tech Farming

Megan and her family are also moving into using more technology, both on their own farm and in their custom work. The spreader they purchased for Megan is actually a “variable-rate” spreader. In a nutshell, this means that Megan is able to precisely apply the exact amount of lime that a field needs, and in precisely the right spot. How? Well, farmers are taking advantage of current GPS technology to make their operations more efficient. By combining soil tests and nutrient recommendations with different segments of a field, Megan can apply a small amount of lime in one section of the field, then automatically switch to a higher application for the next area.

But are many area farmers using the technology? “It’s slowly catching on,” according to Megan. “We have the technology to do it, with auto-steer (GPS controlled-steering) and extensive soil testing.” She and I both expect that farmers will use it even more going forward, especially if they can see yield improvements because of it.

A Philosophical Farmer

“I worry sometimes that other people don’t take farming seriously,” Megan admits. “I think about the future of our food, and I know we have to feed more people, but we don’t have the workforce we once did.”

She’s right. Many 2nd or 3rd generation farm family members are leaving the farm. They are often searching for a more secure career, one with a guaranteed salary and benefits. Megan concedes that farming can be tough, though she feels the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“We may have had to do without some material things growing up, but we also learned about hard work and appreciating what you have. I want my daughter to grow up like that. I think our generation has gotten too used to instant gratification. I’m guilty of it too, but I try to remember that my father has been building this business for 25 years, and the wait has been worth it.”

If Megan’s outlook seems uncharacteristic of the typical young adult; keep in mind, she’s a farmer. Hard work and patience are a way of life for her and other young farmers like her. She loves her job, and loves getting to work with her family, which makes the tough times a little easier.

“It’s a hard job,” Megan tells me. “But I’m getting a lot more out of it than just money.”

Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Farm Women Friday: An Ag-Vocate

There’s probably not a farmer in Queen Anne County, MD, that doesn’t know Jennifer Rhodes. Jenny is an active member of the farming community on the Eastern Shore. She’s been farming all her life, and is a recognizable face at county fairs and educational meetings.

Jenny grew up on a farm – her father raised beef and grain. She knew she wanted to farm as an adult, but it’s difficult to get started. There are a ton of initial costs to farming: purchasing or renting land and buying equipment are two big ones.

Jenny decided her best option was to get involved in the poultry industry. Chickens are grown on a contract basis, so she had a form of guaranteed income. This guarantee helped her to get a loan to construct chicken houses and get started, even helping her to buy a small farm just outside of town.

“I just wanted my children to grow up on a farm,” Jenny says. She certainly got her wish! Her boys were 1 and 3 when they moved to the farm, and now all three farm together under an LLC. They are currently tilling 96 acres of grain crops and also growing broiler chickens for a local poultry processor. They normally have about 80,000 chickens split into four houses for five weeks at a time. (Broilers are small chickens – they only get to about 4.5 pounds.)

Research and the Environment

Driving onto Jenny’s farm is like driving up to a research facility. A storm water pond in front of the poultry houses is currently part of a research effort by the University of Maryland. The pond collects all of the water run-off from the production area. The researchers are testing the levels of phosphorus (a concern amongst chicken farmers) when the water enters the pond and when it leaves the pond. What could the difference be? Well, the researchers (and Jenny) are hoping the difference is significant.

They are testing a new method of phosphorus collection. They have placed metal boxes full of “steel slag,” a byproduct of the steel industry, that attracts phosphorus. The phosphorus should bind to the steel slag particles and stay out of local ditches and streams. The researchers have just started their testing process, but are optimistic so far.

“Newer poultry houses are being built to keep water in that production area through a series of swales, ditches, and ponds. But older houses weren’t necessarily built that way. We’re trying to do everything we can to limit our run-off and reduce the nutrients that leave our farm.” Jenny has a good point – just like your house, chicken houses were built so that water drained away from the house. Now we’re trying to do the opposite and much of the research done with poultry farms today is determining the best way to manage that water.

Jenny’s farm is full of environmentally-friendly projects. “The idea is to keep nutrients and dust from the chicken house to stay in the chicken house, or to filter it through vegetation,” Jenny tells me. All of the chicken houses have 40 foot by 40 foot concrete pads at either end as part of this goal. Any manure or shavings that get out of the house (when the chickens are moved out to go the processor, for example) can be swept right back into the house. It doesn’t have a chance to go any further.

If there ever is any debris that makes it off the concrete pad, it gets filtered through grass buffers that surround the houses. Jenny has also planted tall grasses near the tunnel fans on the ends of the houses that can filter any dust leaving the houses. The plants can absorb and use the nutrients instead of allowing them to get into the nearest waterway. “The grasses are like a doormat for a home, except we’re trying to keep dirt in, not out!”

As almost every other poultry farmer does, Jenny also has a manure shed on her farm. When the poultry houses need to be cleaned out completely, the manure goes into the sheds to get composted. Having the manure shed keeps the manure out of the elements until it is time to apply it as fertilizer onto their fields, per their Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan. (We learned about those with Christy, remember?)

“Changing regulations are our biggest challenge right now. As farmers, we need to make sure that we are in compliance, but also try to stay ahead of new regulations.” Jenny wants to impact her surrounding environment as little as possible, and continually looks for new ways to do so.

Part of that effort includes becoming more energy-conscious. “People forget sometimes that farming is a business,” says Jenny. “We have to be profitable.” Their biggest production costs on the poultry farm is electric. They recently made the change from large box fans, which were an energy drain, to more efficient radiant heaters. The new heaters keep the small chicks warm without having to heat all the air in the house. Saving money and saving electric – that’s win-win.

Part of a Farming Community

Jenny’s community involvement has evolved through the years. She’s been with Queen Anne County Cooperative Extension under the University of Maryland for 16 years now. She started back in ’96 as a Nutrient Management Advisor. The current Agriculture Agent encouraged her to go back to school to pursue an advanced degree. With the help of her supportive family, she graduated a few years later with a Bachelor’s in Agriculture and a Master’s in Extension Education. Since 2006, she’s been an Extension Educator. She plans and runs workshops in areas that are as varied as Poultry Production and Estate Planning.

She’s also involved in other ways – Jenny is currently Vice President of Delmarva Poultry Industry, an industry and grower group working to promote the progress and continuation of the poultry industry on Delmarva. (Delmarva is the peninsula that covers Delaware, the eastern shore of Maryland, and a small piece of Virginia, for those of you wondering.) She has previously been a member of the grower and scholarship committees for the organization.

A few years ago, Jenny got a chance to participate in LEAD MD – a leadership development program. Not only did she make some great contacts in other agriculture industries, but she got a better picture of agriculture across Maryland and the different facets, such as timber, that are important to the state but aren’t very prevalent where she lives in eastern Maryland. It’s an important point – just because someone is a farmer, doesn’t necessarily make them an expert on ALL types of agriculture. But we’re always happy to find an expert and point someone in the right direction, so don’t hesitate to ask.

She’s a member of several other farm organizations: Chairman of the Maryland Farm Bureau Poultry and Egg Committee, Board of Directors for MidAtlantic Farm Credit*, and advisement positions for local Soil Conservation Boards and local Farm Bureaus as part of her work with Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Jenny is also still involved in 4-H. Both of her sons grew up through 4-H, and she was a club leader for ten years. Now she’s a 4-H All-Star, a member of an alumni group that works to raise money for scholarships for current 4-Hers. “Both of my kids were able to go to college thanks to scholarships; I’m a big advocate for finding ways to send kids to college.”

She is also a big advocate for farming. “Farmers like to be on the farm,” she tells me. “We don’t always want to tell our story or be in the public eye, but it’s important that the people who buy the food we produce know what we do. We take a lot of pride in the way we raise our food, and I want people to know that.”

I have to say, I agree.

Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.



*Full disclosure: I’m an employee of MidAtlantic Farm Credit.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Farm Women Friday: Everything Has Changed

Time for another episode of Farm Women Fridays! Today I’m excited to introduce you to Angie Gooden, whom I will forever refer to in my mind by her maiden name, because when you get to know someone in high school it’s difficult to flip that mental switch.

Angie currently farms with her husband in Kent County, DE. In partnership with her brother-in-law and father-in-law, the Gooden family tills 1000 acres of crops – wheat, soybeans, and field corn.

What’s field corn? Well, field corn is used for animal feed and other byproducts such as ethanol. Sweet corn is the corn you eat as corn-on-the-cob. In the field, sweet corn is shorter and is ready for harvest sooner than field corn. In Delaware, we harvest sweet corn in late June/July, and wait until September to pull out the combines for field corn.

The family also raises 60-80 feedlot steers in a beef operation. They purchase 6-month-old calves, weighing from 500-700 pounds each and raise them to one and a half years, weighing 1400 pounds. Angie says they are planning on purchasing brood cows this year and will raise calves from birth instead of purchasing them. The family sells the majority of their steers at the auction in New Holland, PA, and a few to neighbors and a local butcher. They also butcher one steer for their own freezer.

So what are Angie’s responsibilities on the farm? A little bit of everything, it seems. “I just do what needs to be done,” she tells me. During the upcoming wheat harvest, Angie might find herself running the grain cart in the field. Another day she might be down with the steers, checking on their bedding. She can also frequently be found at the local hospital – Angie also works as a Registered Nurse.

And let’s not forget she’s mother to a two-year-old, so, yeah, it’s safe to say she’s rarely bored.

Busy? Yes. But Angie certainly isn’t new to farm life. As so many of us farm wives did, Angie grew up on a farm. Her family had a 350-head hog farm and also raised a few cows. In addition to the livestock, Angie helped out in the grain portion of her family’s operation, baling straw and working ground for planting.

Growing up, Angie was very involved in both 4-H and FFA and was a well-known face at the hog shows at state and county fairs. She still shows hogs in the open (adult) classes at a few livestock shows in the area. “Livestock has always been my passion,” she tells me. Angie also helps some local 4-Hers with their own livestock projects, focusing on showmanship skills. (In most market livestock shows, a judge is rating the animal, but in showmanship classes, he or she is judging the person and how well they present the animal in the show ring.)

Like many farm women, Angie has some plans for expansion. “I’ve thought about opening a small produce stand,” she says. She already has a beautiful garden, but right now she’s only growing for her own family.

Her other future plans are focused on her son. When I ask about how he likes the farm, Angie says, “He’s a little young right now, but I’m sure he’ll show hogs when he gets a little older. Right now he just loves to ride on the tractors and combines with us.”

I can understand that. It’s been my experience that little boys love tractors – both toys and the real-deal, full-size machinery.

In all the time she’s been involved in farming and agriculture, what has changed? Angie laughs when I ask the question. “Everything has changed,” she says. More housing development in the area has triggered some of those changes. “There’s just not as much farmland anymore. We need to increase production on what we have left.” More and more people moving into rural areas are unfamiliar with modern agriculture practices or are several generations removed from farming.

Angie wants those neighbors (and all her neighbors, really) to know that, “we pay attention and we are careful.” This is especially true in regards to spraying chemicals or spreading manure. They won’t spray when it’s windy, for example. Not only are they trying to maintain good relationships with neighbors, it’s also in their best interest to exercise caution. Drifted fertilizer or pesticides are chemicals wasted, since they aren’t being applied to the crops. They don’t overuse chemicals, striving instead to apply just what is needed to minimize or eliminate run-off.

I find this conscientious behavior to be very typical of our farmers and their families. We’re all trying to do a good job for our families, our farms, and our neighbors. Thanks to Angie for doing her part as well.

Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Farm Women Friday: The Backbone of Farming

This week’s guest for Farm Women Friday is Becky Vanderwende, owner of Little Wagon Produce on the very busy Route 404 in Delaware – a main thoroughfare for Marylanders heading to the Delaware Beaches in the summer. If you’ve driven that way in the summers, you’ve probably seen the big green + white wagons sitting in front of the greenhouse and building. And you’ve probably seen a few vehicles out front, too.

But it didn’t start out like that. “We started the stand because we had an overgrown garden,” Becky tells me. “The kids had a 4-H garden, and we put the excess produce on a little wagon at the end of the lane with a money jar.” Over the last 20+ years, that little wagon has grown into a storage building with walk-in coolers and greenhouses to start their plants in the spring. “We’ve just grown very slowly,” Becky says. “Now we try to add something or improve the stand every year. One year we added some fencing, we’ve paved the entrances, and most recently we added a second cold storage cooler.”

They also participate in local farmers’ markets. Becky has been taking produce to the Milford Farmers’ Market on Saturdays for ten years now. They also bring goodies to the Seaford/Western Sussex and Georgetown markets. There’s been a steady increase in local farmers’ markets in the area, and she’s found a few that fit well with her offerings. “We have people that have started coming to the stand because they’ve seen us at the market, or vice versa.” She certainly has loyal customers, many of which have gotten to watch her family grow up through the years. (Her youngest daughter was only three when they set that first little wagon at the end of the drive.)

What other changes has Becky seen over the years? “We notice when there’s a dip in the economy.” She says people tend to buy different items during an economic downturn. Instead of vegetables, they buy bedding plants in the beginning of the year so they can grow their own. The more decorative items she sells, like mums, hanging baskets, and pumpkins don’t sell as well during those times. Canning is more popular though, so she’ll sell boxes of cucumbers for making pickles and packages of canning tomatoes. “We worried that people wouldn’t come to the beach (their main visitors on the weekends are beachgoers) when gas prices went up and the economy went down, but it actually helped our stand. It seemed that people decided to take short trips to the beach instead of a bigger vacation, to say, Florida.”

One question Becky says she hears all the time from customers is, “Is it local?” She’s even had people come who don’t speak English, but know the word “local”. It’s a growing trend in our country, this whole “buying local” thing, but what I find interesting is the definition of local. See, there isn’t one. Most of Becky’s produce is grown right on her farm behind the produce stand, which I think we’ll all agree is local. She gets her melons from the next county over, which I still consider local, but some may disagree. Peaches + apples come from Pennsylvania, and blueberries from Jersey. If it’s out of state, is it still local? I’d argue that it is – or maybe we could call it “regional” produce at that point. Let’s be honest, “out-of-state” in Delaware is likely to be five miles down the road. Regardless of original location, it’s definitely fresh and delicious.

Another hot topic for customers? Organic. As in, is their produce organic? The answer is no, though Becky did have some interesting insights into conventional farming that may surprise you. While she does apply some chemicals to their produce (and her husband is licensed to apply them commercially), they try to use as little as possible. “It costs us money to use pesticides and fertilizers, so we do what we can to avoid them.” How? Well, they have their summer help pick bugs off the plants instead of spraying pesticides, and use black plastic sheeting (think trash bag material, but thicker) over the vegetable beds to control weeds and limit the need for herbicides.

What keeps people coming back to Little Wagon Produce, especially when there seems to be a produce stand every mile on Route 404? Quality. “I don’t want to sell something that I wouldn’t buy myself,” she tells me. When I visited with her, she was grading strawberries that she had purchased from another farm and tossing some in the garbage. “My husband says I’m picky, but I don’t want anyone to be unhappy with their purchase from us. I guarantee all our produce. If someone is unhappy, say their cantaloupe is too soft in the middle, I’ll happily refund their money.”

It’s definitely all about customer service here. Her summer help, mostly high school girls from the area, always greet every customer with a friendly smile. Becky and her employees will answer questions about the produce or help someone find the perfect flowers. I love that they always ask me if I need help carrying my bags to the car. Since her main goal is always for customers to be happy and satisfied with their plants + produce, Becky also tries to educate her customers about their purchases. She is careful to make sure they know how often to water their flowers and if they need to be in sun or shade, and tells them how quickly to use their fruits + veggies to avoid spoilage.

She also makes an effort to talk about produce availability. “I’m surprised at how many people really don’t know when produce is in season,” says Becky. Most consumers (me included) are accustomed to being able to buy any fruits + veggies they want, year-round, at the local grocery. She says one big question is about strawberries. “People don’t realize that truly local berries are really only here in May, with some limited production in late April and early June, depending on the year and the weather.” She tries to refer people to the Delaware Department of Agriculture Availability Chart that she has hanging on the wall. And while many people expect berries too late in the season, she also gets requests for sweet corn too early. “We’re famous for our corn. I always say that if you have good corn, people will come back for that.” But early June? Forget about it. Their crop normally isn’t ready until late June, but they’re planning on a slightly early start this week, with a limited amount available this weekend.

Next time you’re heading down 404, stop in to Little Wagon Produce and say hello to one of our local farm women. She’s a great example of a wife and mother who is incredibly active in her family’s farm operation. As she says, “Women have always been the backbones of farms, but they’ve been in the background. Now we’re seeing more women moving to the foreground of farming.”

Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Farm Women Friday: Making our Farm a Better Place

Welcome back to Farm Women Fridays!
This week, we’re meeting someone who literally grew up on my block, Christy Brown. Heck, we even rode the same bus to school. Like many farm women, Christy has been involved in agriculture since she was a child. She grew up on a poultry farm and began showing horses when she was five years old. She was a member of a local 4-H club and raised, showed, and sold market lambs and goats as part of her 4-H projects. In high school, she was active in her FFA chapter, even competing at the national level.
Christy knew she wanted to stay involved in ag – she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Agronomy and went on to work as a Soil Conservationist. She works with other farmers to write Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans for their farms. She’s also stayed involved as a member of the Young Farmers + Ranchers division of the Farm Bureau, Delmarva Poultry Industry, the Delaware Quarter Horse Association, and the American Quarter Horse Association.
How does she have time to actually farm? Yeah, I have no idea. But she’s making it work.
Christy and her husband Ben currently operate a grain + poultry farm in Caroline County, MD.  In addition to tilling about 50 acres, they grow roaster chickens for a local chicken processor. Roasters stay in the chicken houses for about 9 weeks to reach full size. They typically are growing 33,000 chickens per flock rotation, and grow 4-5 flocks per year.
They grow their birds in a temperature controlled poultry house, where the birds have unlimited access to feed and water. There are no antibiotics or hormones in the feed, which is supplied by the contract company. Christy sums it up nicely, “The poultry company and we as a grower are constantly doing our best to provide the most optimum conditions on our farms for the birds because not only does the consumer want a healthy bird, but we benefit from growing one.”
Christy says they try to run their operation every day with thoughts of what they can do to make their farm a better place and protect the natural resources around it. Did you know that every Maryland farm that makes at least $2500 through their operations, or produces the equivalent of 8,000 pounds of meat annually, is required to follow a Nutrient Management Plan? (Other states may differ). Christy is actually employed by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service to write Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans (a more detailed version for larger farms).
So what is a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP)? As explained by Christy, NMPs detail how much organic nutrients and commercial fertilizer a farmer can apply to his (or her!) land. The amounts are based on soil tests and help farmers figure out just how much chemicals/fertilizer/manure they need to get the best crops, without over-applying.
The Browns also participate in the conservation cover crop program. Planting cover crop each year is very important to help prevent soil erosion and keep nutrients from leaching off the farm. Their goal is to go above and beyond to keep our local bays and watersheds clean and healthy.
Christy says she loves what she does. Talking with her, it’s easy to see that she’s very passionate about the farm. In her words, “I cannot think of any other way that I’d want to raise a family someday.”
Thanks, Christy! Next week, we’ll be meeting a farmer who operates her own produce stand in Delaware.

Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

First Fishing Trip

This past weekend, P taught H how to fish. It was a family trip, although my participation was pretty much limited to taking pictures. And sitting on a lawn chair. Which pretty much makes this my favorite fishing trip ever.

See that cute little fishing pole? Adorable, right? And of course, it's Cars-themed. As if H would accept anything less.
H's favorite parts were probably a tie between reeling the line and playing with the worms. No, I take that back. It was definitely playing with the worms. We probably could have skipped the fishing part and just let him throw worms into the pond one by one.

His first catch was a sunfish. Looks small to me, but according to P, it was a pretty good size for a sunfish. I've come to the point where I pretty much defer to him for all outdoor-related matters. We both know that my expertise lies elsewhere. For example, I am way better at programming the DVR.
H is now telling anyone who will listen that he caught two fishies, and they were big fishies, and that fishies eat worms. It took some convincing to get him to understand that the worms don't eat the fishies, but I'm pretty sure he's got it now.

Anyone else been fishing lately?