Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Manure Smells

Camping made up most of our vacations as I grew up.  Living in Maryland, we had the choice of traveling west to the Cactoctin Mountain range or head east to the water.  I lived in a camping family and each summer we would head west to what we, in Maryland, call mountains.  I do not know what constitutes a mountain but the ones I have seen in Colorado or other states makes ours look like hills.  Maryland is relatively flat when comparing sea level heights. 

Camping took us out of the city and into the hills.  Once there and setup our father would inevitably find a farm near by and purchase what ever they had.  The larges might serve for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  I remember the smells most of all, walking into a horse barn to ride horses or passing a field that was being fertilized.  When I inquired, I was told it was fresh air that I was smelling.

It was a different smell than I had experienced in the City.  Except when the Arabber would come by and the horse would leave fertilizer, which my father was quick to get for his own garden (see "A City Boy's Education"). 

Their answer about fresh air made sense to me.  Having had my olfactory senses assaulted as we pass the waste disposal site on a summer day in Baltimore or passing a brewery or other manufacturing plant, you could quantify their answers.  I think that because of their answer I always associated manure smells with fresh air.  It is an oxymoron for most people I admit that, but there is a speckle of truth too.

Being outside and away from suburban and urban settings the air was different.  Yes, I was smelling manure but at the same time, it was associated with fresh air and fun.  I point to that time as the beginning of my education on manures.  When fields are spread with manure I can tell you, what kind of manure it is by the smell.  This skill will get me nowhere and it is not something that is discussed at cocktail parties or family gatherings.  Are there cocktail parties any more? 

I digress, of all the manures; horse manure is the best smelling to me.  That goes back to my youth and riding horses.  The worst of the worst is pig manure.  I am sorry to all my swine friends but that is how I feel.  When we first started looking for a small farm, we stopped at a pig operation.  I still shudder at the thought of that experience.

I love pork, bacon, sausage, chops, ribs you name it, except for the more exotic stuff like feet and snout, I will eat pork.  That manure smell though is polar opposites of horse or cow manure.  Even chicken and turkey smells better and poultry manure has an ammonia smell. 

Like I said, this skill will never amount to anything but it is a just another link in a chain that has led me here.  Besides, everyone knows manure smells.

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Nutrient Management or Manure 101

 We are in class to learn how to fertilize a field, with the correct amount of nutrients.  Given the fields’ history of fertilization, soil analysis, manure analysis, animal type and amount of time that has passed, I can tell you how much Nitrogen-N, Phosphate-P, Potash-K (N-P-K), lime and other trace minerals you may need.  It is known as Maryland's Nutrient Management (NM) Regulations.  Because we live in Maryland, we must submit a NM plan that outlines our use and applications of fertilizer and manures for the coming year based on the yield goals we have for a particular crop.

 It is all part of cleaning and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake is a body of water that has some of the best blue crabs, oysters and rockfish (striped bass) you will ever eat.  That would also include a crab cake, made using the back fin or lump portion of the crab.  .  A  crab cake is a seasonal delicacy that has no equal in the culinary world, the soft sweet taste of meat with just a touch of spice and a binder to keep it all together.  I am a born and bred Baltimorean, so I was born with blue crab genes.  Eating crabs was a summer treat for us growing up and it was always a big party with lots of people.  It was a “Right of Passage” when you got old enough to drink beer with the crabs.  You really do not get the full taste of crabs until you have a cold beer to wash down the salty, fiery seasoning that is used when steaming the crab.

In Baltimore, you grow up with crabs.  First, you are fed crabmeat because you are too young to pick the crab.  Then you get to an age where if you do not learn to pick crabs you do not eat crabmeat.  Then you learn how to go “crabbin Hun”!  Crabbing is the act of harvesting crabs from the bay and its tributaries.  This activity comes in many forms, tie a chicken leg on a string and hang it off a pier, throw a trap into the water with beef lips or run a five hundred foot line with meat tied at six-foot intervals.  

With the string, you wait to feel a tug, which is an indication that a crab is on the line.  You slowly raise the chicken leg until you can just barely see the crab.  If you are skilled enough, you have a wire net in the water ready to scoop the delicacy off the line. If not, someone else does the net for you.  With the trap, you just wait a bunch of hours, go back, pull it up, and take the crabs out.  The preferred method for us is the trout-line setup.  If you do trout-line or string the start time is always the same.  You are up at four in the morning and out the door to get things setup in the water. 

When we asked why so early it was always the same answer, "The crabs cannot see you if it is dark out.  If they do not see you on the surface, you have a better chance of catching the crab".  Even back then, I questioned "If the crab could not see us what made them think we would see the crab".  It did not matter who you went with either.  Friends, family or charter; it was always the same time, get up at four o’clock in the morning and head out to the water.  Add to that crabbing is not without its perils.  Crabs do have claws, with pinchers and survival instincts, which means at some point you may be obliged to  give blood to the harvest. 

At the end of the day, the smell of "Old Bay" seasoning mixed with beer and apple cider vinegar steaming the crabs’ makes it all worth it.  It is that smell, the taste and knowing you have caught the crabs that makes it special.    

Given our history and taste for crab, you start to see this class and certification have greater meaning for us than just meeting a State requirement.  It fits within our ecological practices and allows us to apply proper amounts of fertilizer to our fields thus saving money and maximizing yields.  The only problem is we have to pass the exam in order to receive certification.

So we must learn how to tell how much manure is in a field, given the type of animal (cow, pig, chicken etc), the average weight of the animal, how many hours, if any, they are indoors and what bedding was used, versus outdoors and how long they have been on a particular piece of land.    We will never use this information because of how we currently use our chickens.  They are outside all day and are moved to new clean areas frequently.  You need soil and manure analyses, historical data on previous fertilizing, and past nutrient analysis in order to determine how much N-P-K are currently available in your soil and how much of each you may need to meet yield goals. Suffice it to say, I feel like I am back in school and the old test anxieties are rearing their ugly heads. 

We will learn how to write a complete nutrient management plan, calculating how much N-P-K is needed on our soil for next year’s growing season.  We have learned the proper techniques for getting soil and manure samples and how to submit them for analysis along with what type of analysis protocol is warranted.   We have homework, homework!  

As complicated, as this stuff seems, it is an integral part in saving scarce resources and ultimately the farmer really benefits from not over-spending on nutrients.  Therefore, we are putting our noses to the grindstone to become a Maryland Certified Operator.  This means we can write our own nutrient management plan and not have to pay to have it done.  Therefore, if you ever want to know how much animal manure you have out in your field, I know the formula to tell you how to calculate the amount.  Household pets excluded.

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Green Manure and other nitrogen fixers

We use field rotation and cover crops as a way of resting and building our soils' nutrients and tilth.  It is also a way to cut down on our weeds.  Some plants like "Morning Glory" are invasive species and seeds can be viable for up to fifty years.  It has become one of my goals to eradicate them.  The Federal Government categorizes Morning Glory as a noxious weed.  It has a beautiful flower and we suspect was used around outhouses in the days before modern plumbing because it is so prevalent here.  In order to get that flower, the vines of the morning glory wrap around anything that is vertical.  The vine climbs and squeezes its host; usually corn, tomatoes, peppers; you get the picture.  As the host plant grows so too does the vine until the vine chokes out its host.

Sort of a parasitic relationship when you look at the whole process.  Then to have the seeds viable for so long it has become the scourge of our farm.  I can be doing something totally unrelated to weeding and see one and it will draw my attention.  I'm sure there is something clinical about this behavior but I figure due diligence is a must with this weed. 

We use a farm practice that is frowned upon but we do it because it works and we can eliminate run off.  The growing ecological trend is to disturb the soil the least amount possible.  In order to plant, farmers use what is called a drill press planter.  It is referred to as No-Till planting. With No-till practices managing weeds takes on two varied methods.  If you are conventional then weeds are sprayed.  On the organic side cover crops are used for their ability to be rolled over and flattened and stay flat enough for the planted seed to germinate.  This works well along with cover cropping in general.

What we do is till, but we till on flat land so run off doesn't exist.   If done incorrectly, tilling soil leads to erosion, run-off, and depletion of nutrients and loss of topsoil.  It is one of the factors that created the Great Dust Bowl in the 1930's. The areas that we own that are sloped are put in pasture and cover cropping.  Cover cropping is a way to keep weeds down while adding natural nitrogen back to the soil.  We have a multi-tiered approach to weed control and yes heat is one aspect (see Are We Done Planting...)

Depending on the use of the land, we will do the following; starting in early spring as soon as the ground temperature reaches forty degrees we will do a deep till then let the land sit.  We'll wait for the weeds to come up and fill the tilled area.  I'll then do a shallow till between two-three inches deep.  It is important to note that you do not want to wait for the weeds to get seed heads.  The reason you want the weeds to grow is to expend the seeds in the ground.  Letting the weeds mature to seed heads defeats the purpose. 

After the shallow till we will plant with grasses and nitrogen-fixing legumes.  If the chickens are going on the land we will plant rye and hairy vetch (a legume).  Once the seeds have germinated and grass is established we move the chickens on to feast.  They eat the bugs, the grasses and leave behind fertilizer.  They get moved periodically so that manure is evenly distributed in the field but more importantly for the chickens' health.  

The next season’s production gardens are treated differently.  First they've been rested for a year with just green manure on them.  In the spring of the second year they are tilled and planted as described above.  For the spring, summer, fall and winter the chickens stay on them.  The difference is after the first six months of the second year the chickens are moved to another production garden and we till the area and plant grasses.  The rotation on the next year's production garden is such that we have seeded fields, fields ready to mature and mature fields.  That way the chickens always have fresh grass to be moved onto when the current plot has been used up.  The chickens are moved every three days onto a new patch of grass and this dance takes place all year long.   In the spring of the production year the area is deep tilled and left for weed seeds to grow.  It is tilled one last time and planted with production vegetables and cover crops.

This practice is great for the birds, the land and the vegetables that inevitably benefit.  The birds are out in the open and get fresh air and grass and clean space.  This practice eliminates respiratory ailments, the need for anti-biotic because they are not standing ankle deep in their own waste and cuts down on the spread of a disease.  Think about it, the first thing we want to do when cooped up for long periods of time is to get outside and take a deep breath.  We all crave it at some point in time.  That is one of the underlining factors for us as an ecologically sensitive operation that uses sustainable practices.

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