Cultivate Baltimore growing interest
BALTIMORE — On a perfect early summer evening, more than a dozen attendees showed up at Whitelock Community Farm for the second workshop in Cultivate Baltimore’s series on urban farming.
A collaboration of Future Harvest CASA, the University of Maryland’s Extension Service, and the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, the workshop began by identifying pests, both plant and insect, and ended with a discussion on soil health and compost.
Sprinkled throughout the workshop session, food safety issues were also discussed.
Handing out insect nets, Peter Coffey, a UM Extension Small Farm and Alternative Agriculture educator as well as an entomologist, explained how to manipulate the nets on a row of plants to catch a sampling of the insects there.
While the adult attendees were trying to emulate Coffey’s fluid motions with the nets, one of the young Whitelock neighborhood volunteers had already located and caught several interesting specimens.
The first find, which Coffey declared to be “a great (specimen) and common insect pest that is often misidentified, is a Harlequin stinkbug nymph,” or the immature stage of a Harlequin stinkbug. His stinkbug identification immediately drew a chorus of “Eww!” from everyone present.
Coffey explained that “a lot of people mistake it for a ladybug. Harlequin stinkbug nymphs, however, have much more black versus a ladybug’s red or orange and the nymph’s markings are less distinct.”
“An incredibly common garden pest that loves cold crops,” Coffey noted the Harlequin stinkbugs, like all their drab cousin stinkbugs, “have piercing sucking mouth parts that feed off the juice of the leaves, leaving bleach spots behind on the leaf.”
Although those feedings “won’t kill the plant, they will stress the plant,” he said.
In response to a question about the bleach spots, Coffey pointed out that “the leaf is still perfectly good to eat, but they make the produce the leaf is attached to unattractive and reduces its marketability.”
The mention of marketability quickly led to a short discussion of food safety, particularly when someone noticed that one of the collected leaf specimens had bird poop on it.
Neith Little, also a UM Extension Educator, who specializes in urban agriculture, explained “bird poop is a vertebrate contaminant of food and for larger operations that need to comply with the Food Modernization Safety Act, you would be required to remove the leaf and have a policy for how much of the surrounding leaves you should also remove.”
Little suggested using bird netting to keep birds, and in the instance of one attendee, squirrels, from contaminating their produce harvest.
Kimberly Raikes, Whitelock’s farm manager, closed the conversation observing that Whitelock voluntarily uses “Good Agriculture Practices, or GAP, so anything with bird poop goes in the compost pile.”
The mention of compost prompted the group to move across the street to the urban farm’s newer portion, a corner of which housed Whitelock’s new composting station managed by volunteer and self-proclaimed compost expert, Peter Driscoll.
Along the way, discussions continued not only about different insects, both pest and beneficial, but also about different weeds, and that “like crops,” Little said, “there are warm season weeds like ragweed, and cool season weeds like chickweed.”
Observing that the composting process is “as much an art as a science,” Driscoll explained the compost station sits on pavers and meets the city’s rodent-proof requirements. “It’s a good rule, Driscoll continued, “because according to food safety inspectors, compost is considered raw manure when rodents are running through it.”
The workshop ended with a comparison of the soils between the two sections of the farm. “Urban farms tend to have a lot more organic matter in their soil,” Little said, “and traditional methods of managing soil are going to be totally different because organic matter holds a lot of water.”
Both she and Coffey encouraged the attendees to test their soil and find out the percentage of its components: sand versus silt versus clay.
“At the human scale, they don’t look all that different,” Little said, “but at the plant scale there are vast differences.”
And, “if you have a problem area,” added Coffey, “make sure you separate that area out from the rest of your farm acreage, so it doesn’t skew the results.”
Finally, Raikes reminded the group that once they began selling more than $2,500.00 of farm products, then they will need a nutrient management plan as part of the requirements put in place to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
To get one, Little said, “they could hire someone or go through UM Extension, which is free, but done on a first come, first served basis.”
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