You might think it, but farms in winter are not barren, sullen and empty. Fields are covered in the dark fluttering green of cover crops, often a mix such as rye, Austrian snow peas and hairy vetch. Chickens of every color, clucking in the early morning, dot the land. Walking through the doorway of the Rainbow Hill farmhouse in Charles Town, West Virginia, drops you directly into a welcoming kitchen and a sense of tranquility.
A rooster-shaped scale sits on the counter, while a fresh basket of eggs rests expectantly next to it. Old black and white movies are playing on the television in the next room, and hundreds of tender green seedlings grow in the sunny windows while snow flurries swirl outside. This is February on a farm, and winter preparations are clearly underway for the flurry of customers craving fresh spring produce.
At Rainbow Hill, customers pay a single sum at the beginning of the season and are then supplied with a box of produce on a regular basis. Customers know where their produce is coming from, can be confident in how it is grown and don’t have to hike to the store on a weekly basis for produce that has traveled thousands of miles. By offering shares, the farmer is provided with capital to run a successful farm, and relationships are built that benefit both farmer and customer. This arrangement is referred to as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and it is gaining in popularity across the country.
What about those who cannot afford a CSA share? Are they left to scout the supermarket? Not hardly! A small number of workshares are often offered in addition to traditional shares. In this model, a person will help do the work on the farm for a few hours per week in exchange for their full share of produce.
Gale, former federal consultant and current serene farmer of Rainbow Hill, knows the value of workshares. “When I started [growing vegetables in buckets on the porch], I realized I was so happy, so at peace,” she says. Now a full time farmer, she loves what she does but does not have the help to make full use of her land. Offering two workshares this year at four hours per week, she is hopeful the added hands will allow her to farm more of her land.
Each CSA, farm and farmer offers a different experience. Rainbow Hill’s share includes eggs from her free-range, leafy green-eating chickens. Last year she lost 30 percent of the flock to predation from raccoons, eagles and coyotes, but considers it an acceptable cost for the gain of giving her chickens space: “…because, you know, you want them to be happy!”
Contented birds on a diet of foraged insects and farm greens seem to make the difference in her chicken and duck eggs—several customers at her farmers market will go without buying eggs rather than purchase from another farmer.
Experiences like this are not unique. Farmers and the public forming relationships, along with enjoying healthy produce, is an intangible gain that cannot be overlooked. It takes a lot of time and effort for a farmer to sustain a CSA, but being part of this system offers a valuable peace. As Gale puts it, “you try to get away from it every year, but the community needs you and it feels good... to be self-sustaining and to give that kind of value to your community.”
The beauty of CSAs is they’re not just for those in close proximity to a farm. Even if you live in the heart of the city, there’s a CSA for you. In that spirit of forming relationships, farmers are connecting with each other as well. Rainbow Hill, which has the benefit of space to grow plants like tomatoes and peppers, partners at a farmers’ market with an urban farm in Washington, D.C. that grows greens, as well as another smaller farm. This three-part harmony allows smaller farms to be connected in their local community and still offer a variety of items, creating a web of community relationships that cross geographical boundaries.
There is great interest across the country in sourcing locally-grown produce and supporting local farmers. Among the younger generations, there is an increasing desire to personally grow food, but most don’t know where to start. Many people cannot afford the high cost of constantly keeping fresh vegetables on the table, but know the value of healthy eating. CSAs, and workshare options within them, offer those interested the opportunity to get acquainted with new vegetables and learn to work a farm. For farmers, markets and the burgeoning CSA communities offer the chance for urban farmers with vertical greenhouses or rural farmers with sprawling acres to get connected. Today is CSA Day, and there’s no better time this year to find your farmer.
Interested in joining a CSA? Chat with your favorite farmer at the market or hit the web and find your perfect CSA match:
Photos and captions by Will Parson
Dave Herbst drives a tractor trailer full of visitors through his family’s dairy farm, Misty Meadows, in Smithsville, Maryland on October 2, 2016. The family hosts tours and school field trips to educate people about the work they do and how they care for their cows.
There are currently about 160 cows, mostly Holsteins, being milked at Misty Meadows Farm. They are milked twice a day in a room that holds 12 cows at a time. Before milking, the cows’ teats are cleaned with iodine to kill off any germs and bacteria. They are then wiped off and attached to the milking units which feeds into a large milk tank. Of all of the cows’ milk, about eight to ten percent is used in the farm’s on-site creamery.
When the family living on the farm expanded, they had three choices: farm more land, increase the size of the herd or add a new facet to the business. That is when they decided to build the creamery, which was completed five years ago. There was no more available farmland and Jenny Malott, Herbst’s daughter who manages the herd, wanted to be able to know every one of her cows. Increasing it to the size necessary would mean losing that connection with her cows.
Like most dairies, they use antibiotics, but only as treatment for an animal’s specific problem. That means that only two of their roughly 300 animals were on antibiotics. “They are all my kids,” says Malott, who says she knows each cow by name. “If your kid is sick you’re going to take them to the doctor, and that’s how I feel about my girls.”
Milk from cows that are on antibiotics is dumped, and once the cows are off of the drugs, their milk is tested to be free of antibiotics before it is used for human consumption. In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration completed a milk sampling survey which found that over 99 percent of milk tested was free of drug residues of concern.
Image by Will Parson
Looking at Bob Ingersoll’s farm, you’d never know that he had been growing hay for over 15 years. The fields that had produced hay—and corn before that—are now covered in native grasses and wildflowers. Last year, Ingersoll enrolled his almost 60-acre farm in Chestertown, Maryland, into the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s (CES) Natural Lands Project.
This September morning, Ingersoll and Natural Lands Project Coordinator Dan Small walk around Ingersoll’s fields, observing the growth and pointing out the different species of wildflowers and grasses they planted only five months earlier.
Ingersoll got involved with the Natural Lands Project through the Chester River Association, one of the project’s sponsors. While he chose to enroll his entire farm, CES typically works with farmers and landowners to plant 100-foot grassland buffers on their land. That way, they can still get money from agricultural production and rented-out land for hunting—as well as a small income from the Natural Lands Project—but also sow the benefits of grassland buffers.
These buffers are known as a best management practice, or BMP, because they can absorb nutrients that run off of farm fields and prevent sediment from entering waterways. But alongside their water quality benefits, buffers can also provide ideal habitat for many species of animals.
Quail and habitat restoration
A large component of the Natural Lands Project is creating suitable grassland habitat for northern bobwhite quail. Quail used to be prevalent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and many people in the area grew up hunting quail, but their populations have declined drastically since the mid-1900s—due in part to habitat loss.
When it comes to installing grassland buffers, Small says, “we found that there’s no real tangible benefit to the landowners or farmers if we just talk about water quality on the land.” However, if they grew up hunting quail, they have an emotional connection to the bird.
Quail require three types of habitat to be successful: open areas, grassy cover and woody cover. “We’re specifically looking to create warm season grass habitat,” says Small. Cool season grasses, like those typically found on lawns, grow thick—meaning small grassland birds like quail that require open ground can’t move through them. “Think of your lawn,” he says. “If that grew up, there’s no way a quail could walk through that.” Warm season grasses, on the other hand, grow in clumps, leaving plenty of space for quail.
One of the factors associated with the decline in quail populations is the lack of woody cover. The disappearance of hedgerows—a row of shrubs or low growing trees that typically form boundaries between farm fields—has had a huge impact on quail, according to Small. As farms got larger, those hedgerows were taken out, and quail lost an important place to go during the winter when the rest of the landscape is covered in snow.
For that reason, dispersed throughout the grasses and wildflowers, are colored markers labeling where they planted hedgerows. “Not only are we adding nesting habitat in all the grass, but we need to add winter habitat as well.”
Creating habitat suited for quail doesn’t just benefit them, but many other species as well. “We have a lot more small birds here than we did any year that I can ever remember, because there’s something there for them to eat,” says Ingersoll. “And butterflies! I’ve never ever seen so many butterflies.” He points out bees and finds a fuzzy caterpillar on one of the wildflowers. Small points out the call of a bobolink, a bird that requires grasslands on its migration. Even deer take advantage of the tall grass cover, as evidenced by the imprint from where a deer had been lying not too long before.
A long-term commitment
It takes about three years for the grasses to get established, but once that happens, they still need to be managed. “You can’t just put it in and walk away,” says Small. After they’re established, they will be managed in part through controlled burns. As the grasses grow, they begin to lay down on top of each other, making it difficult for the quail to move on the ground. “Controlled fire is a really good method to wipe the slate clean,” says Small. “You don’t really hurt the native [plants] because they can respond to that and pop back up.”
Landowners who enroll in the Natural Lands Project sign a 10-year contact with CES. This long-term commitment is a promise both to CES that there is sufficient time committed to establish habitat on the land, but also to the landowner that CES won’t plant the new habitat and then leave. They work with landowners over that time to make sure that the land is in good condition.
“The landowner, somebody like myself, is relying on the best information I can get from Dan to make this as successful as I possibly can,” says Ingersoll. “If we didn’t have the backup, it’d be like learning it all over again. And I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Photos and captions by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson
Video by Will Parson
The word “pollution” tends to bring to mind images of dark smoke billowing out of smokestacks or fluorescent-colored water spilling out of pipes. But there are other types of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay region and they come from a somewhat unexpected place: agriculture.
Agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay region. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, feed algal blooms that create harmful conditions for the Bay’s fish. Too much sediment can cloud the water and smother bottom-dwelling animals. These pollutants are difficult to control because, instead of spilling out of pipes, they run off of large fields when it rains. Sam Owings, a farmer in Chestertown, Maryland, knew the challenges of controlling agricultural runoff, so he decided to develop his own solution.
Owings knows farming, and he knows stormwater. He grew up on a farm where he worked until he was 30 years old, after which he started a site development contracting business. “I learned a lot about soil erosion and soil conservation in agriculture,” he said, “and then I learned about stormwater control in site development.”
After returning to farming 15 years ago, he combined that knowledge to develop what he calls the “cascading system.” The system, which he built and tested on his farm, is a strip of four 40 by 140 foot trenches in a grass waterway between two of his fields. The grass waterway is an area where rainwater—and farm runoff—naturally collect from over 100 acres of surrounding land and are funneled toward a nearby creek.
“The idea behind it is to reduce stormwater flows from the land into state waters,” Owing said. It’s designed to slow down the flow of water by having it run through the strip of basins, filling up each one before allowing any water to discharge into the creek. After the rain stops, the remaining water sits in the basins to either evaporate or absorb back into the ground. Owings specifically placed the basins in an area that receives concentrated runoff from a large area of over 100 acres.
After receiving a research grant from Maryland Industrial Partnerships, Owings teamed up with University of Maryland professor Dr. Allen Davis to conduct a two year study of the system. The results Davis got were telling: of the water that entered the cascading system, 56 percent was not released out the other end and into the creek. The system also captured 65 percent of sediment and over half the nutrients.
Even with the apparent success of the cascading system, Owings isn’t done. He developed a “chain system,” or what he described as a “filter strip on steroids.” Unlike the cascading system, which was designed for concentrated, high-flow areas, the point of the chain system is to collect regular runoff from fields. “The concept is simple,” he said about both of his systems. “You can take an existing filter strip and retrofit it into these.”
The suitability to existing farms is one of the advantages Owings sees in both of his systems. “With many environmental programs, [farmers] have to give up tillable land,” he explained. But since the cascading and chain systems are in grass waterways, which are generally not utilized by farmers, “you’re just making the land more efficient.”
All in all, the project seems to be working for Owings. Now, he’s working with Earth Data to try and get his cascading system certified as a best management practice, a designation that means it is an efficient and effective practice to combat agricultural runoff.
When asked why he developed these systems, Owings’ answer was straightforward: “Farmers are inherently problem-solvers. Agriculture pollution is a problem, and so why not work on a solution?”
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
Video and photo by Will Parson
As the sun breaches the horizon in Easton, Maryland, the blanket of fog begins to dissipate, revealing the still waters of an 18-acre wetland and rows of organic vegetables. This is Cottingham Farm, the work of an environmental-lawyer-turned-farmer named Cleo Braver and a host of helping hands.
This 156-acre farm has undergone a variety of changes before arriving at its current state. The land was once used to grow wheat to feed Washington’s army. It then hosted peach orchards in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After the end of World War II, substantial changes in agriculture swept the nation—industrial monocrops, pesticides and fertilizers—and eventually made their way to what is now the Cottingham property. When Braver purchased the land in 1998, it was primarily used to grow corn.
Though Braver’s professional background is in the environmental field, she was unaware of the impact certain agricultural techniques—both on her own property and other area properties—were having on regional waterways. But after spending many evenings peering out at Goldsborough Neck Creek, which winds behind her house before meeting the Miles River and emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, she began noticing how the fish behaved strangely at the surface of the water. After some research, she learned about the creek’s poor water quality and how the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers was partially responsible.
Braver’s interest in producing healthy food while minimizing her impact prompted her to make a change. By chance, she met Ned Gerber of Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, who assisted with transforming the property by installing buffer strips to reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, replacing corn with organic vegetables and building a wetland housing 30 species of plants.
Gerber helped Braver utilize the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal USDA Farm Bill program that supports the implementation of habitat on private lands. CREP covered 90 percent of the construction costs for the wetland, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources picked up the remaining sum. Gerber and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage continue to manage and maintain the wetland today.
But what Braver is perhaps most proud of on Cottingham is the evolution of the food production there and how it gives people greater access to healthy produce and meat. With the help of farm manager Jenn Djambazov and several employees, Braver now grows at least 50 different organic vegetables and raises pastured pigs. Organic matter in the property’s soil is slowly rebounding, and, to top it off, business is good. Cottingham sells produce through its CSA, as well as in local stores and restaurants.
Braver acknowledges the process has been a lot of work and has required time, expertise and funding from a range of parties. But she maintains that the transition to organic farming is more accessible than many people think, and she advocates for giving it a chance. “I’m not saying convert all of your feed corn to organic vegetables. I’m not saying that all,” she clarifies. With a slight smile at the corners of her mouth, she continues, “But try a piece of it. Take five acres out…”
It could make all the difference.
Images and text by Keith Rutowski
It’s an overcast summer morning in Berkeley County, West Virginia, and Todd Butler has parked his pick-up truck atop one of the many hills that roll across his property. He points to the ridge of a nearby mountain peak, where the dense, forested tree line is broken by a small gap. “I’m sitting in my house, and I can see this mountain from there,” Butler recalls. “I never will forget the very first morning I sat there, and I saw a light on top of that mountain, and I thought, ‘What is that?’ And it turns out, they’d built a house up there.”
As the fourth-generation owner of Butler Farms, Butler has been witness to plenty of changes over the years: a decline in the number of neighboring farms, a rise in residential development, a technology boom for farming equipment. And while some features have remained the same—the original farmhouse, barn and cattle gates are still standing—much of the farm’s operation is dramatically different from when Butler’s great-grandfather bought the land in 1919. Almost a century later, the 200-acre family dairy farm has grown to more than 1,000 acres, home to beef cattle, an apple orchard and a bird and deer hunting preserve.
Over the years, Butler and his father, Bill, have transformed their property into one of the top conservation farms in the Mountain State. A variety of practices—from streamside fencing to cover crops—help to reduce runoff and promote water quality. Cattle drink out of troughs rather than straight from streams, and their feed wagons are continuously moved to different locations to prevent a single area from getting trampled or polluted with manure. The farm’s 72 apple orchard plots are farmed in strips; the land between each row of trees is left untouched to help slow the flow of water and prevent soil from washing away.
Sustainable pest management practices have made the land of Butler Farms a haven for insects, birds and other wildlife. Pollinator-friendly native flowers and grasses border the fields. Patches of sorghum, an annual grass that produces bright red berries, will feed birds and deer through the winter. When Butler was younger, he remembers entire fields being sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals. Now, he says, “we don’t use near the chemicals that we used to. Everything used to be in quarts or gallons; now we’re down to ounces.”
Nine projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed will receive $24.3 million in funding over the next two years as part of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Four of the nine projects were funded through the Bay watershed’s designation as a critical conservation area—a region with significant agricultural production that faces concerns of water quality and quantity. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is one of eight critical conservation areas located throughout the country. Totaling $19 million in funding, the four multi-state projects focus on watershed-wide restoration, ranging from restoring wetlands and forest buffers to rewarding dairy and livestock producers who implement practices that limit runoff from their farms.
The remaining five projects—localized state and county conservation initiatives in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia—will receive a total of $5.3 million in state-level RCPP funding.
The RCPP was established as part of the Agricultural Act of 2014—better known as the Farm Bill—and replaced regional conservation programs that were founded under previous Farm Bills, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI). Under this new program, qualified organizations, or “partners,” can propose projects that implement a variety of conservation practices on privately-owned farmland and forested areas.
Nationally, the 115 selected projects will receive an estimated total of $372.5 million in funding. A majority of available funds were allocated to state and national projects, while 35 percent went to projects in critical conservation areas. Nearly 70 percent of all funded projects address either water quality or availability, with the remaining projects addressing additional concerns such as wildlife protection, energy use and soil quality.
A complete list of funded projects is available on the NRCS website.
Reducing runoff from farmland has lowered pollution in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania waters, indicating a boost in on-farm best management practices could lead to improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
In a report released earlier this year, researchers with the Chesapeake Bay Program, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use case studies to show that planting cover crops, managing manure and excluding cattle from rivers and streams can lower nutrient concentrations and, in some cases, sediment loads in nearby waters.
Excess nutrients and sediment have long impaired the Bay: nitrogen and phosphorous can fuel the growth of algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life, while sediment can cloud the water and suffocate shellfish. In New Insights: Science-based evidence of water quality improvements, challenges and opportunities in the Chesapeake, scientists make clear that putting nutrient- and sediment-reducing practices in place on farms can improve water quality and aquatic habitat in as little as one to six years.
Planting winter cover crops on farm fields in the Wye River basin, for instance, lowered the amount of nutrients leaching into local groundwater, while planting cover crops and exporting nutrient-rich rich poultry litter in the upper Pocomoke River watershed lowered the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Eastern Shore waterway. In addition, several studies in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania showed that when cattle were excluded from streams, plant growth rebounded, nutrient and sediment levels declined and stream habitat and bank stability improved.
Image courtesy Chiot's Run/Flickr
Earlier this week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named the Bay watershed one of eight “critical conservation areas” under the new Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will bring farmers and watershed organizations together to earn funds for soil and water conservation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will expand outreach and innovative conservation practices on farmland in three small watersheds in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to show how focusing funding, sound science and strong partnerships in small geographic areas can help improve the health of local waterways and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
The three small watersheds, called “showcase watersheds,” are:
USDA’s goal is to reach out to all of the farmers in each watershed to learn about the types of voluntary conservation practices they are currently using and to let them know about opportunities for financial and technical assistance.
Each watershed has its own restoration goals and will receive additional funding and staff to help increase the use of agricultural conservation practices on local farms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also contributing funding, and the U.S. Geological Survey will conduct local water monitoring. Local watershed groups and nonprofits are also involved in the efforts.
The showcase watersheds concept is part of the USDA’s plan to implement new conservation practices on four million acres of farmland in the Bay watershed by 2025, a commitment included in the federal government’s recently released Strategy for Restoration and Protection of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
“The showcase watersheds strengthen USDA’s commitment to funding priority conservation practices in places that will do the most good for water quality in the Bay and its tributaries,” said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan at an event to announce the showcase watersheds.
The USDA’s Bay watershed work is funded in large part by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, which was established in the 2008 Farm Bill and provides $188 million from 2009-2012.
Visit the USDA’s website for more information about the showcase watersheds and other Chesapeake Bay activities.
Agricultural practices account for roughly one-quarter of the land use in the Bay watershed. Of that land, approximately 17 percent is devoted to crop production, which contributes significant amounts of nutrients and sediment to the Bay and its tributaries. But an increasing number of farmers in the Bay watershed are turning to a new, more Bay-friendly method of crop production called “no-till” farming.
Traditionally, cropland is fertilized and plowed in the spring to turn over the soil and prepare a good seedbed for planting. However, strong, frequent spring rains cause stormwater to rush across bare crop fields, which do not yet have plants to stabilize the soil and absorb the fertilizer. Excess nutrients and sediment from fertilizers and freshly plowed fields run off into surrounding waterways, eventually winding up in the Bay.
No-till farming, also known as conservation tillage or zero-tillage, leaves the soil undisturbed from the fall harvest to spring planting. Seeds are planted in very narrow slots that are “drilled” into the ground using disk openers, or coulters.
There are many benefits of no-till farming compared with traditional methods, including:
No-till farming is considered such a critical part of Bay restoration that several no-till programs have recently received Chesapeake Bay Targeted Watershed Grants, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These grants help organizations implement innovative programs to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that flow into the Bay.
In 2006, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - in partnership with Penn State Cooperative Extension, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Capital Area RC&D Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council - received a grant to oversee the conversion of 12,750 acres of cropland to continuous no-till agriculture. This conversion will reduce the annual nitrogen load to the Susquehanna River by over 99,000 pounds, and the annual phosphorous load by over 17,000 pounds.
Farmers and landowners interested in no-till farming can contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for more information.