Farmers urged to be creative, consider other methods
GEORGETOWN, Del. — A panel of area farmers challenged attendees at their session of The Delmarva Soil Health Summit last month at Delaware Technical Community College to question how things have long been done in crop agriculture and to explore alternative methods that could have monetary and production benefits.
“There’s always room for improvement in what we’re doing,” said Matt Fry of Fair Hill Farm in Kent County, Md. “There’s changes in science, changes in technology and it’s about knowing that we’re chasing that goal, and that it’s never going to be (done), but that’s part of the fun.
“We don’t have to cross that finish line to know it’s a success as long as we continue to strive after that.”
Fry, who maintains a dairy operation in Kent County, Md., helps sustain his family’s farm with crops and a herd of beef cattle. He said that he has explored ways to separate his business from a heavily dominated poultry industry in the area.
“We have a two-crop infrastructure here on the Shore because that’s what the end-user demands of us. There are lots of other crops out there that we can utilize,” he said, explaining what might be appropriate for chicken feed can be used for livestock. “We’re all in the protein market. How can you have a strategic relationship with someone else that you work with?
“You don’t have to be the one who has the cows, but if there’s someone else, have that relationship to allow you to broaden that crop base that you use and turn other crops that have been just cover crops and find a way for them to be a cash crop as well. That’s where I see a lot of opportunity.”
Fry joined nearby Trey Hill, of Harbourview Farm in Kent County; Jay Baxter, of Baxter Farms in Georgetown, Del.; and recently retired farmer Chip Baker of Hillsboro, Del., in encouraging farmers to “think outside the box.”
“As a farmer, it’s hard to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation,” Hill admitted. “We have so much other stress (from other professions with) markets, health, personnel and everything else, that we view that stress as the same — but it’s unhealthy stress.
“For me, planting green and planting cover crops and changing the way we do things has given me some of that healthy stress into my business life, and I think it’s made farming more fun. It’s not tied into economics — it’s just tied into quality of life — and it’s added a lot of enjoyment into growing corn and soybeans over the last decade.”
Cover crops was a popular discussion point for two main benefits: Securing the land’s nutrients and using those nutrients for the next cash crop that will be planted.
“When you plan a cover crop, whether its for a corn or soybean crop, you want to determine what kind of cover crop you want to plant,” Baker said, who endorsed a plan of variety. “With corn, for our operation the last six or seven years, we planted a legume, a grass and brassicas. We planted brassicas to retain the nitrogen and phosphorus and whatever else for the next corn crop.”
Baxter said the most simple of tools can help a farmer analyze his soil.
“One of the best tools anyone can have on the farm is pretty economical, and it’s a shovel,” he said, while displaying a shovel and square-foot wedge sample of his farmland he had brought to the event. “The hardest thing to come by is time, but trying to use it correctly is where we can all be extremely wise.
“There are so many answers that are just underneath the soil’s surface that you’ve got to get a shovel out there and look at them. The majority of what’s here is chick weed and hen bit — those are weeds, but they’re holding the structure together. … Go down a shovel (blade’s) depth, and just look at it.”
He said taking a shovel-blade-deep sample helped explain why his corn was struggling one year.
Fry said that being proactive and having first-hand knowledge of which additives are and aren’t added to crops is important for a farmer to keep his business viable.
“This concept of carbon sequestration is big deal for the end-user. We have a direct relationship with our milk buyer and this is coming down the track,” he said. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it is produced and what the impact is to the environment.
“There is a lot of big ag and big companies out there making big promises to the consumer and ultimately it’s going to be about who can deliver these promises, and how are they going to do it — and they want to be able to track that right back to your farm. … It’s not something that you’re thinking about or looking at now, but it’s something you should be looking at, because it’s coming faster than a lot of us are going to be ready for.”
Baxter said farmers have been proactive for years, and it’s encouraging for the industry’s future.
“This era of farmers who are farming now, and for the last 30 years are being extremely efficient at capturing every bit of nutrient that they put on their field, and it’s not ending up where it doesn’t belong. I’m real proud of that,” he said. “It’s interesting to see history repeat itself on some very healthy and profitable ideas.
He noted that it’s keeping land in farming, too.
“I would venture to say that the majority of farmers don’t want to cash out, because we’re still having fun,” he said. “As long as we can stay profitable and viable and still have fun, then we’re going to stay here.”
Hill said questioning how traditional farming is done can lead to progressive tactics, and he’s inspired by his young child — who admits he’s more interested in getting fishing worms from the ground than a grain harvest.
“‘Why are you doing this?,”’ he said his son asked. “And I had to think about it. If it’s because that’s how dad does it, that’s the wrong answer.
“In life, as fast as things move and we’re having an evolution, whether it’s technology or learning or the environment or social concerns. With farming, we tend to think that we don’t have to change, but we really have to change with the times. I used to really dislike answering those “why’ questions, but now I like it, whether it’s my son asking why do we use chemicals, I better have a good answer. … I still don’t know all of the right answers, but knowing which questions to ask has really helped me to change.”
Baker said that it’s OK to make mistakes with alternate ideas, but to pay attention and to learn from them.
“I’ve made many mistakes,” he said. “But I never made the same mistake twice.”
The two-day Delmarva Soil Health Summit featured guest speakers from across the country ranging from soil scholars to farmers who presented the latest in cover crop economics, soil health initiatives, carbon storage, no-till trends, challenges, successes and lessons learned through break out sessions and farmer lead discussion panels.
Presentation information and videos of the plenary presentations and farmers panels have been posted to the Delmarva Soil Summit website and YouTube. Visit http://delmarvasoilsummit.com/index.php/presentations/ to access both.