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.