Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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It is a matter of time

My wife and I met some incredibly talented and gifted people this past week.  We attended the regional BMSB workgroup meeting and met the professional people that have dedicated their lives to the pursuit and understanding of insects and the insect world, also known as entomology.  The USDA-Agricultural Research Services is coordinating the efforts of the University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech., Rutgers University, University of Oregon and many others, in the fight against the BMSB.  We were invited to attend and speak about the hardships and challenges that we faced this past growing season with the bug.

It all started with Congressman Bartlett rounding up his colleagues and writing a letter to the USDA and EPA asking for emergency assistance.  As the news played out, we kept hearing stories of how hard the conventional orchards were being hit and how nothing was working on the BMSB.  Having lived through the summer, we started to get concerned that “Organics” was never mentioned in any of the news stories; not online, in newsprint or television.  In Frederick County, where we live, we have the most organic farms than any other county in the state of Maryland.  Congressman Bartlett is our representative.

I wrote his office and asked if he could make sure that organics would be included when the USDA and EPA were doing research on the problem.  At the same time, I posted a cry for help on this blog, asking people to write their representatives stating the same.  Not soon after, Congressman Bartlett’s office wrote and put me in touch with the lead scientist on the project.  I called her number and left a message.  I introduced our organic operation and myself and told her about the devastation the bug caused on our crops.  I then asked that she please keep organics in mind as she conducted her research.  I felt good that I was able to leave that message and that the head researcher would hear it.  Do something about, might be a different story, it may or may not be within her power.  I at least felt I did my best to give organics a voice.

 A couple of days later I received an email from Dr. Leskey (the head USDA researcher) asking if we could arrange for a phone call.  We did and I talked to her over the phone.  She assured me that organics was in fact part of the discussion and research.  She then had her own request, would I come to the next workgroup meeting and address the researchers?  I did what I do in any situation were I am not sure, I told her I would think about it and get back to her.

I do not have a problem with public speaking; I have spoken to groups both large and small at farm conferences.  We give educational tours around the farm.  I am not shy when it comes to speaking about my passion and the ills of industrial farming.  This however was a different audience.  These were PhD’s from renowned Universities and prominent USDA/EPA research labs.  I was intimidated.  What could I offer these folks but anecdotal information?  These people have spent their adult life in entomology.  They are the ones we write to when we reach the end of our knowledge and they are the people who have the answer to our questions.  Except for the BMSB, they have answered every other question we have asked.

I talked to my wife and told her all the reasons that it did not make sense for me or both of us to go.  The meeting was too far away, we would have to take off work, what information could we bring to the table that they have not already heard.  I had a ton of reasons but I never brought up that I was intimidated.  I called Dr. Leskey back and explained that we would not be able to attend that we had appreciated the invitation and were comforted by the fact that she did have organics on the radar screen.

 At about the same time the USDA announced that the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) had appointed a new member and that member was a local farmer I knew.  He is Nick of “Nick’s Organics”.  The NOSB is the governing body that approves what can and cannot be used in growing, handling and production of organic consumables.  I called to congratulate him.  As part of my BMSB campaign I had sent Nick the same email I sent o everyone I knew, imploring all to contact their representatives.

 As the conversation was ending, he thanked me for my congratulations and asked if I had any traction or movement on BMSB.  I explained to him how I did get to talk to some folks, about how Dr. Leskey invited me to speak but I declined the invitation.  I told him the same stuff as I did my wife and Dr. Leskey.  Nick however, did not let me off as easy as Dr. Leskey or my wife. 

I do consider Nick a mentor even though he is mainly an organic meat person, I look to him for counsel.  He has been in organic farming for more than twenty-five years.  However, this relationship did take time to develop.  When we first called the State to discuss organic certification they gave us Nick's name because he had been organic farming, for years, near our farm.

The discussion got around to what we were going to be getting certified.  My wife told them vegetables to start then fruits.  Our Department of Agriculture is one of the best government run agencies I have ever dealt with or have read about.  They did not try to discourage us, but, they did say what they see is that people start out with organic vegetables and fruits and then turn to animals.  They then gave us Nick's name and told us to talk to him.  They said he had been around awhile and done what we had done.

We knew of Nick from attending farming conferences and educational seminars.  After hearing what the State said, I avoided him as much as possible.  I understood what they were trying to say and I see it sometimes in the people that work for us.  It is a great thought that you are not harming the environment and you are growing the freshest, safest and tastiest fruits and vegetables.  It is also a romantic thought and one that a lot of people have, do good for society, the earth, yourself and your community.   You work out in the fresh outdoors under blue skies with nature all around you.

Within the first couple of months after starting work or starting a new season reality sets in and slaps you cross the face.  Romantisisim rockets out the window in 100 degree heat and you are left with the facts that this is hard, dirty, sweaty, tiering, exhausting, dangerous, relentless, frustrating, untammed and at the total mercy of mother-nature kinda job. 

I knew all of this, I had grown organic tomatoes and peppers for twelve years for ourselves and family.  We walked into it with our eyes open and a ten year business plan.  If we are not profitable by year eleven then I will have failed and I will have to close up shop and go back to growing for ourselves again. 

In my addeled brain my thought was I did not need people to tell me why I should not grow organic fruits and vegetables, I needed to find people who know how to grow organic fruits and vegetables.  For the longest time I avoided Nick except for the occasional hellos at different functions.  But, then we started buying hairy-vetch seeds and chicken feed from him.  I slowly started to see him in a different light, he was supportive, energetic, extremely knowledgeable and raised some really good tasting beef.

As the years past we talked more and for longer periods of time.  It was sometimes about esoteric things like the time I told him to cook his beef on a cherry-wood fire or him telling me how to pronounce edamame.  Other times it was about the problems we face as small farms.  When we read the news of his appointment we were excited for him and called to congratulate him on his selection.

The conversation wound down and he asked me if had any traction on the BMSB issue.  I told him about the workgroup and that organics was being considered and I told him of the invitation that I had declined.  In Nick's own iniminable style he explained the relative importance that had been bestowed upon me. 

He explained that what I had to say and share with these people might be anecdotal but that they had to hear from the people that were on the front lines fighting this bug in order to make a living.  The scientists needed another perspective he said, one that I could provide and could translate to all other organic vegetable and fruit operations.  Having lost all the corn, tomatoes, peppers, apples, persimmons and raspberries we did this year, I could not refute his advice. 

He gave me the name of a local organic orchard owner who he said could also speak to the need for organic research.   I wrote the name and number down, thanked Nick and congratulated him once again.  I hung up with sort of a sick feeling growing in my stomach.  I followed through and wrote the orchardist an email and explained the situation.

In the mean time, I called Dr. Leskey back and asked if both Eric and I could address the audience.  Her answer was quick and unequivical, yes it would be appreciated.  Weeks later we got the agenda, we were to speak at about 10:20a.m.  We also got to see who and what was being presented before and after we were to speak.  To say I had beads of sweat would be an understatement. 

To be continued.......

 

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Animal husbandry

My admiration and adulation goes out to all of those farmers that have big animals and do it humanely.  To me, anything bigger than a chicken is a big animal.  Well, maybe except for pigmy goats.  The knowledge big animal farmers have to possess and dedication is daunting and to do it all humanely amazes me about them.  The dedication alone makes me think what I do is just playing.  I know I am not but by comparison, I am a babe in the woods. 

When you choose to be a humane farm, in my opinion, that choice is made from one of two motivations; one is reason the other is emotion.  Reason looks at the facts of animal production and takes into account, taste, productivity, health, environmental impact, total cost, rate of return on your investment and workload.  Then there is the emotional decision.  You take into account the health of all the animals, you anthropomorphize to a certain extent and you want to make their brief existence on this earth as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.  Unstressed animals taste better and they need no or minimal drugs because of the healthy environment.  No matter what motivation drives the choice, both ultimately benefit, people, animals and the environment.      

I think when reason comes into play there is less angst when dealing with mortality.  Having talked to colleagues and reading posts here, I know there is grief no matter how slight.  I can see it in the words we all use when describing the loss, be it to slaughter, age and illness or shear economics.  Even with reason your heart is in it, because with reason comes compassion and with compassion comes some amount of strings attached to the heart that will be tugged.  

I am not a mental giant but, I can clearly claim I fall into the emotional category.  Mortality was and still is my biggest hurtle.  I did not want any animals, at all, because I knew that the mortality, for whatever reason was going to fall on my shoulders.  Whether it was just to bury an expired animal or having to put one down to relieve its misery or worse yet taking the life because of economic reasons, I was against the notion.  We did eventually get into animal husbandry as has been chronicled in our blog.  As I age and mature, in my new role, I can say that my heart is not hardening but that I am getting less unsettled when dealing with mortality.  It still takes a toll and I am reminded of Dr. Temple Grandin’s statement that ordinary people “can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.”  We fall way short of anything close to that but the thought is there.

I will tell you we currently have four pet chickens out of the forty we have.  These four are the oldest and no longer produce eggs.  I cannot bring myself to take them to be processed.  What got us through the first culling was we knew that the last thing the chickens would do was feed the less fortunate and homeless (see Spent Layers and Humane Farming).  These four I just cannot do it, they trust us to keep them safe.  I know what I just said, but when you walk up to most chickens they are going to run from you.  With some if you can get a hand on them they will squat.  I have been told this is an instinctual act dealing with reproduction.  Having observed the rooster in action, I can see their point, but the rooster has to catch them first and get a good grip before the submissive behavior takes place.   

With these four, when I walk up to them they squat and wait to be picked up.  Even if all I am doing is bringing them food or water.  If I come into the pen and one is around me she raises her shoulders out from her body and lowers her body closer to the ground.  To me that is an indication of trust.  If a chicken runs from you, we would associate that behavior with fear.  If they stay and let you pick them up would we associate that behavior with trust?

When we take a tour of kids around the farm they are my go-to girls.  I can walk up to one pick her up and let them see a chicken up close and personal.  The hen stays calm without throwing a fuss and lets the children pet or touch her.  I will talk about the hen and point out the waddle, comb, beak, nostrils and ears.  I skip the vent unless asked “where do the eggs come out?”.  I will then point to the hen’s ear and tell them that is how you can tell what color egg they will lay.  I usually get responses from the parents at that point in time because it is a fascinating tidbit.  Education is a big part of our mission.

No matter why a person decides to be a humane farm the practice is good for the animal, good for the environment and healthy for the consumer.  As for the farmer, I think that the practices make us all feel good.  Once again that giving back aspect makes a person feel good.  By providing open spaces, natural grazing and comfortable living conditions we benefit from production, the animals thrive and the environment recovers naturally.

 

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