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.

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