Team of mom, sons ‘swamped’
WALDORF, Md. — Cindy Beuchert and her sons Tyler, 25, and Cody, 23, farm only as much as 50 of their 350 Southern Maryland acres.
The land, at a lower elevation than fields that surround them, is primarily a part of Maryland’s largest swamp: the 14,000-acre Zekiah Swamp, which the Smithsonian Institution calls one the most important ecological areas on the East Coast.
“I love the swamp,” Beuchert said of the land that spans Charles and Prince George’s counties. “It’s very diverse in animals, plants and fish. There are species that exist there and nowhere else. But it does make us have to think a little differently about how we use the land for farming.”
The half-mile wide, 21-mile long Zekiah Swamp is one of few forests and marshes to survive state development. The swamp includes 279 acres that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources owns and manages as well as a portion of Cedarville State Forest, where visitors can explore a swamp trail.
The swamp in between is privately owned, gently descending from land such as Beuchert’s to fertile bottomlands that were formerly used for logging and tobacco growing.
Beuchert, a former Izaac Walton League chapter president and now a state of Maryland employee, purchased Zekiah Farms in 2000 with her then-husband, David Thorne, a firefighter.
Corn, soybeans and wheat were growing amid ditches that formed where the farm’s gravely surface soil transitions to a clay that doesn’t drain well when wet and becomes concrete hard when dry, she said.
“On normal land, the water … a lot of times … rolls off of the field,” Beuchert detailed. “We’re at the bottom of the rolloff where everybody’s water rolls off to it. … There are parts of the farm where I wouldn’t drive a tractor until a day or two after rains so that they have a chance to dry out.”
Beuchert planted grass strips and uses no-till practices to limit soil erosion. She also switched from row crops to vegetables — cabbages, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, peppers, cucumbers and squash — that she grows in a tunnel and on raised beds. She drip irrigates the beds beneath plastic that she said helps hold the dirt in place in hard rains.
Beuchert called drip irrigation the “most effective form of irrigation” and the “most efficient use of water.”
She said: “There’s no evaporation from the sun. There are no rivelets in the ground causing erosion. Plants don’t drown in rains. The water gets into the roots with an allowance for drainage that helps to maintain the compactness and moisture of the soil.”
Beuchert created sorghum and sorghum sudangrass mazes for agritourism and, when the mazes flooded, she installed a boardwalk for navigating them. When she began raising farm animals, Beuchert opted for rotational grazing that she said provides them quality pasture while helping to keep roots and soil in place.
“We’re very conscious of water quality — and not because anyone comes in and tells us to do anything,” she said. “We just do it.”
Much of Zekiah Farms began spontaneously, a result of filling a community need and raising two boys, Beuchert said. Tyler and Cody, through 4-H, learned about responsibility, gained a good work ethic and grew to love the environment, nature and animals and the way in which everything works together, Beuchert said.
When the parent of a peer in Cody’s kindergarten class said that a local pumpkin patch was especially crowded, Beuchert planted one — and the next October welcomed groups of school children to it. A visit to a corn maze near the Strausburg Railroad in Ronks, Pa., inspired her to create mazes that youth groups could also enjoy.
Beuchert began raising farm animals when Tyler and Cody joined 4-H. She also provided space for animals belonging to other 4-Hers.
Zekiah Farms is now home to about 300 chickens, 30 sheep and goats and 12 hogs. Beuchert’s sons now work full-time jobs as she does. Tyler is a firefighter and Cody works for the Department of Natural Resources police. Like her, they work the farm as well, she said.
The three reside some seven miles up the road, where they now have their pumpkin patch and raise beef cattle. Beuchert also grows on that property root crops such as potatoes and sweet potatoes that are difficult to grow at Zekiah Farms — perhaps because the hard clay soil doesn’t expand, she said.
She and the boys raise the farm’s produce using organic practices, dealing with humidity problems such as fungus via successive plantings, spacing and trellising them so that they benefit from air flow rather than lay against a moist ground, she said.
They raise their animals without steroids, antibiotics and added hormones, Beuchert said.
Zekiah Farms’ sheep undergo regular hoof trims for their inability to naturally wear the keratin hooves down themselves by treading hard surfaces. The farm animals are according to Beuchert also tended to so that they don’t experience issues such as footrot, which can occur after bacteria develops on wet skin between the digits.
Zekiah Farms isn’t the only Mid-Atlantic property that experiences wet weather issues, Virginia Beach Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent Roy D. Flanagan III said.
The Mid-Atlantic states feature “quite a bit of tidal farmland,” areas that become abnormally wet to flooded, he said. Farmers must during those times be more timely with field work and concentrate on fruits and vegetables that grow in the loftiest lands and on rows or beds, he said.
Zekiah Farms is a rare farm to enjoy land along the Zekiah Swamp which, in addition to bestowing natural wonder, helps to cleanse waters that make their way to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
“The swamp is a huge filter,” Beuchert said. “It’s also a sponge. It helps retain moisture so there’s no flooding. It’s why swamps should never be drained anywhere in the country.
Zekiah Farms experiences a good deal of deer pressure, Beuchert said.
The same electric fences that prevent farm animals from accessing water keep deer from destroying raised produce beds and mazes, she said.
Beuchert and the boys sell their meats, produce and jarred farm products at an on-farm retail market, the Charlotte Hall Library Farmer’s Market and through a CSA subscription program.
Zekiah Farms products are also sold at stores such as Cooksey’s Country Store in La Plata.
Beuchert’s nephew, Lawrence, and Tyler’s fiance, Taylor Fleetwood, also work at the farm, but the land doesn’t produce enough to pay a full-time employee, she said.
“It’s not something you make money off of. . . [though] I’ve done a lot to make it grow and continue reinvesting to do what I do,” Beuchert said.“It’s a love and something that you can’t leave.”
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