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?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Farm Women Friday: A Family Affair

Welcome to the first edition of Farm Women Fridays! I’m going to highlight some of our local farm ladies throughout the summer because A) Sometimes it’s nice to get to know the people behind the food in your grocery store and B) These chicks are pretty cool.

hc1And speaking of chicks, allow me to introduce you to our opening act, Heather Clopper, from Caroline County, MD.

Heather was raised on a farm, and grew up with farming as a way of life. She says, “I have always been daddy’s little girl and when I was little I couldn’t wait for my dad, uncle, and grandfather to work in the fields close to my house so I could ride in the tractor or combine. Every time I rode with my dad I would fall asleep.”

Right now, Heather works on her family farm, which is a grain and poultry operation. They raise broiler chickens (picture the whole chickens you put in the oven or crockpot, about 7 pounds when fully grown). Her father and uncle till over 3500 acres of wheat, corn, and soybeans at their respective home farms and in the surrounding counties. Heather enjoys operating the equipment and assisting with the necessary upkeep of the farm + machinery.

DSCN7207

It truly is a family operation, and working with her family is one of the things she likes best about her job. Different members of her immediate and extended family have varying responsibilities, from the actual farming + running equipment to balancing the books + running payroll to running into town to get lunch for the day’s crew. I’ve know the family for five years, and I agree that everyone in the family is always working for the farm in one way or another.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. One of the biggest drawbacks of any farming operation is putting up with long hours, especially during the busy seasons. Harvest is the worst, and I’ll drink to that. It can also be a challenge, as a women, to do some of the physical things that the men on the farm do.

(But don’t tell them we said that. Us girls will never live it down).

Heather has worked off the farm, too, including stints with a retail plant nursery, greenhouses, and even at an accountant’s office. Though she learned a lot and is glad for the experience, she believes that “when you work somewhere you should love your job all the time.” More than anything, she just wanted to be back on the farm, a job that often feels more like a hobby. She gets to do something she loves, and also gets to help feed America. That really means something to her.

There’s also always something new to learn, whether it’s how to contract in the grain markets or new advances in agriculture technology. Technology is becoming a big part of farming, and one of Heather’s goals for the year is to eliminate the paper trail that bogs down so many farmers. Having business details on the computer makes things so much easier - finding info on a specific farm, for accounting purposes, and easier to back up important files.

I asked Heather what she, as a farm woman, would want to tell other women and moms about agriculture. She said she’d really like to let people know that farmers are doing everything they can to make sure their farms are environmentally responsible. In Maryland, one major concern is water quality – most of their farms are one county away from the Chesapeake Bay.

Her family is using a variety of environmental practices on their farms to help filter water – buffer strips around ditches and a sediment pond  (to catch run-off) near the chicken houses are just two examples. They also enroll some of their land in the CREP program, which takes tillable acres out of crop production and instead allows that land to become forested buffers and even wetlands. (For more info on CREP, here’s a great summary).

When asked about how she raises her chickens, Heather said, “They are probably in a more comfortable environment than I am most of the time.” The birds get to stay in a climate-controlled house and have an all-you-can-eat buffet of food and water. They are actually on a vegetarian diet – no animal by-products in their feed.

As for the future, Heather is looking for ways to expand the operation. She’ll definitely keep farming as long as she can, because according to her, “Farming is in my blood.”

 

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!