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Full Circle Farming: How commercial pressures and government regulations affect farming success on the Eastern Shore

Nov 01, 2016 11:37AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Facing commercial pressures and government regulations, the future success of Eastern Shore farming relies on the time-tested resilience of the hands-on farmer

By Marimar McNaughton | Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

U.S. Highway 50 runs east to west, for 3,008 miles, from Ocean City, Maryland, to Sacramento, California. The manmade roadway bisects Dorchester County, Maryland splitting naturally occurring growing regions.

To the north, farmers raise spinach, watermelon, sweet corn, and potatoes, because the ground’s so sandy and it’s good for vegetable crops, says Garrett Luthy, 31, a fifth generation farmer and president of the Dorchester County Farm Bureau.

“The county’s so diverse; south of 50, everything is primarily grain crops,” Luthy says.

Tracing fingers of land interlaced by swamps and grasslands, Lower Dorchester County roads bridge slithery rivers and crest spits of high ground. This is Bucktown where Luthy lives, amid historic Blackwater Marsh, roughly 15 feet above sea level at his family’s home farm—on 1,300 contiguous acres he cultivates with his father, uncle, and cousin.

The closer the clay loam or silt loam soil is to waterways, the better, Luthy says.

“It contains more organic matter, holds water better,” he explains.

Wooded areas host indigenous, as well as introduced, wildlife, including the sika deer, which Luthy says is a nocturnal nuisance, foraging on corn and soybeans. Both grain crops, along with wheat, make up his farm’s yield.

“The home farm was the first farm that my grandfather purchased himself in the mid-’50s,” Luthy says. “My dad, my grandfather, have been building on it forever.”

Luthy’s ancestors immigrated to America from Switzerland in the late 1800s, settling first in Nebraska.

“They saw an ad for cheap farmland, so they came to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Dorchester County, and bought their first farm here in 1901. The family actually still owns that farm,” Luthy says, two roads over, or about a mile and one half away.

“The big crops here were tomatoes, wheat, corn, at the time,” he says. “Everybody had livestock—just like the farms in Europe, everything was 100, 200, acres—sustainably what was needed to live on and have a little bit of extra cash. I spent my whole life here. My dad has lived on this farm his entire life.”

The Luthys’ Greenbrier Farms border Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and the Edward Brodess Plantation where Harriett Tubman spent her working years as a slave.

About eight to 19 miles away from Luthy Lane, which faces the Bucktown Store where Tubman took her legendary blow to the head, the area—between 25,000 to 26,000 acres, including the more than 20,000-acre wildlife refuge—was recently annexed as national parkland and monument. On an additional 17 acres, the state of Maryland is constructing a visitor’s center dedicated to Tubman and her Underground Railroad.

“There’s a physical beauty to it too, but it’s intended to become a cultural park,” Luthy says.

“We don’t know what’s really coming down the pipes now, but there was some language that local farmers pushed in the bill that we wouldn’t be regulated on what we spray, or farming practices, or timber practices…locally. There’s no eminent domain.”

Aside from whatever pressure the new national park might bring to the rural economy, Luthy’s Talbot County neighbor, Greg Gannon, says the pressure on the agricultural industry is not what the average person would think it might be. The president of Cecil H. Gannon & Sons, Inc , says, “It’s not development pressure. Talbot County and a lot of other counties have zoning codes in place that preclude any significant loss of ag land to development.”

Instead, Gannon and Luthy are targets of state and federal mandated regulations.


Predicting Pressures

“Agricultural is the No. 1 sector in the state. It’s the No. 1 industry, believe it or not, in Maryland, and that’s mostly due to the chicken industry,” Luthy says. “We sell all of our grain to Perdue.”

Gannon, with his family—third and fourth generations—farms 4,700 acres of wheat, corn, and soy, too. Most of the meal is sold to chicken breeders. But earlier this year, when the legislature was in session, several bills threatened to make the production of grain and handling of chicken manure more cumbersome for the region’s farmers than it already was, Gannon says. Though it did not pass, a five-cent head tax per chicken introduced in 2014 still sticks in the craws of most southern Eastern Shore crop farmers, who spread an estimated 228,000 tons of chicken waste, or manure—rich in phosphorous and nitrogen—as fertilizer on grain fields. The nutrient runoff leaches into the Chesapeake Bay producing oxygen starved shellfish and finfish habitats.

“When you’re trying to produce something, crops, it’s a given that the weather and the commodity market are always there. Sometimes they’re very favorable and sometimes not so much.” But, Gannon contends, the weather and commodity prices notwithstanding, the regulation of farming practices is the biggest challenge facing today’s farmers.

“The Chesapeake Bay may never be the pristine body of water it once was in Colonial times,” Gannon says. “We don’t argue that perhaps because ag is the biggest user in the watershed that most of a certain type of nutrient isn’t coming from ag, but a lot of progress has been made; and still it never seems to be enough.”

Luthy concedes farmers must evolve.

“But, at this point, we’re a decade ahead of other states as far as nutrient regulation,” he says.

Julie Oberg, Maryland Department of Agriculture Communications Director, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s initiative sets limits on the amount of nutrients and sediments entering the Chesapeake Bay.

“These pollution thresholds, called the Total Maximum Daily Load, represent the maximum amount of pollution that the bay can accept and still meet water quality standards,” she says. “The six bay states (Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York) and the District of Columbia are required to follow approved Watershed Implementation Plans outlining specific actions and strategies they will take to achieve these pollution limits by 2025.”

But Luthy argues Maryland is the only state that has responded to the EPA’s clean the bay initiative so far.

“They give you a recommendation on how much fertilizer you can put out on the field, and every farmer has to adhere to that, because every farmer gets audited by the state,” Luthy says. “We have to take yearly fertility tests. The soil is sent to a laboratory and they do an analysis on it. You can tell exactly what you’re doing to the soil every year.”

The nutrient management plan also includes a fall cover crop program to encourage the practice of planting wheat or rye, even radishes, to absorb excess nitrates.

“It’s not a bad program, I’m just not sure how effective it is,” Luthy says. “The numbers aren’t really flattering for the state to dump $25 to $30 million into the program every year. The whole purpose of it is to get you to use just as much as you need. Of course there’s no formula for that. If you get eight inches of rain one summer as compared to 20 inches of rain another summer you need almost twice as much fertilizer. It comes on a year-to-year basis. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t affect your yield,” he says.

Tractors equipped with GPS and variable rate technology read soil, sample, and map the fields for fertilization and cultivation.

“Where you would need the most fertilizer, your planter, via your GPS, will actually change on the fly,” Luthy says. “When you cross these areas where you need more or less, it will bump up the rate or slow it down.”

The same GPS technology produces yield maps that guide the combine to pick the crops. The cost of that technology is staggering. An interchangeable combine header—engineered for harvesting one specific crop—for example, is a one half million-dollar investment. For the larger grain farmers dependent upon the chicken industry, diversification is not necessarily an option, throwing the entire viability of the farming industry or sectors of it into question.

“At one time tomatoes were a big crop here on the Eastern Shore,” Gannon says. “There were canning houses everywhere. There’s virtually none now, because California and other places can produce them better and cheaper. Those market forces came into play and the canning industry ended. I would venture to say in 1945 or ’50 if you said, ‘Hey can you imagine the Eastern Shore without a canning industry?’ people might look at you. Is it possible that the chicken industry could go away? Of course it’s possible. In a world of seven billion people and in a country of 330 million, it’s going to take Big Ag to produce the food.”


Big Ag Concerns

On the Eastern Shore, and across the country, the term: Big Ag frightens some consumers.

“Back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, farms had a small dairy herd, a crop of chickens. They were the sorts of Norman Rockwell type farms you would envision. Now ... if someone is milking cows, they’re probably milking at least 1,000 of them. They’re raising chickens in houses with 20, 30, 50,000 head of chickens in there. There’re still some small farms but most grain farms are at least 500 to 1,000 acres and they go up from there,” Gannon says.

“But when you think about your food…you think of some kindly old gentleman in a floppy hat putting your produce in a basket—that’s what you envision with being the best.

You don’t want modern things associated with food, but that’s not the reality of the situation,” Gannon says.

As the agriculture industry grows, production is more specialized.

“So much is leading away from being an agrarian society,” he says.

On Mason Farms in Queen Anne County, Bill Mason milked cows until he went to college in the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, after his father sold off the dairy herd, the family retained its grain fields but entered into the large-scale propagation of vegetables—lima beans, sweet corn, and string beans—for commercial, frozen food production.

“Most people are always thinking about new and different things they could do easily. The financial always comes into most of the decisions,” Mason says.

The family ventured into the roadside produce business with a bumper crop of sweet corn about 25 years ago.

“We just had some extra produce and we thought: ‘Well, we’ll just sell some along the road.’ My daughter was very small. She’s 32 now. She liked helping us; she was about seven years old. My wife liked talking to the customers. Once it built up into a nice little business, we thought about all the work we were doing and thought we couldn’t give it up,” he says.

Grain farmers like Mason are busiest in spring, but after the wheat harvest, usually around the Fourth of July, they have a bit more time. The Masons ran their roadside produce operation until Labor Day weekend.

After serving the Maryland Department of Agriculture's marketing division, Kate Mason Kraszewski and her husband Steve Kraszewski, both Cornell University graduates took over the produce operation. In addition to homegrown vegetables, they source locally made baked goods and preserves, not unlike what might be found in a regional farmers’ market. The inventory may soon expand to include beef raised by Steve Kraszewski’s family. It seems a perfect marriage of family interests with the locavore movement, especially when the farm’s grain production is now almost entirely organic. Mason says his family made the decision to pivot from conventional grain production toward organic production for several reasons.
“Definitely on the list, near the top, was Monsanto and their control of the seed business,” Mason says. “In the early 2000s the price of seed continued to escalate. With their genetics—I’m not saying it’s all bad…We decided we didn’t want to follow that route through that company.”

At the same time they found their income moving in the wrong direction, the Mason family decided it wanted to steer away from the use of so many chemicals.

“This is the major reason,” he says. “I can’t stand on a soapbox and tell you there are things that are going to kill you, but we just decided we just didn’t want to spray. We were spraying out in the field, we’re walking in, it’s getting on our shoes, we’re digging in the soil, we’re looking at the crops—we wanted to get away from so much of that. We weaned ourselves off,” Mason says.

Though not quite 100 percent organic, the Masons are heading in that direction.

“We really didn’t have to change a whole lot,” he says. “We had the equipment that was necessary for organic farming. It costs us about the same amount of money to grow organic corn as it does conventional corn. We can’t grow as many bushels but we reap a much higher price; and, when you calculate that, it rewards you more.”

But it’s more work, Mason says, “You’re going over the field many more times because in most cases you’re plowing the soil, working the soil; then you have to plant it and cultivate it. Most conventional farmers just take no till (prepping the seed bed with minimal soil disruption). They’re making one or two passes across the field and they’re done and we’re making five or six passes.”

The load of paperwork is also greater, along with spring and fall inspections.

“We have to fill out approximately a seven- to eight-page report every spring that tells them what we did the prior fall after harvesting the crops, the yields.”

The report also outlines the farm’s spring intentions.

“Every farm has a map, every field is numbered and lettered. It’s a detailed process,” Mason says.

During an annual fall inspection reports are read, the farmland toured.

“[Inspectors] want to look at your input records—your seed bills—just to see that you’re buying the proper seeds and nutrients; and, then they go out…with their maps. If you said in the spring you were going to plant corn in field No. 6, they’re going to want to see corn in field No. 6. If you didn’t, you need to adjust your plan to say, ‘It was too wet so we planted soybeans in there.’ They need a paper trail on your record so if there’s any question about the product being sold, it can revert back to the inspector and the inspection; and if there’s an issue they should be able to trace it right back to your seed and see exactly what you’ve done,” Mason says. “It makes you keep better records.”

Family Roots

Bill Mason’s great grandfather bought the land he farms with his brother, daughter and son-in-law around 1890. The arable land, sassafras sandy loam, is the state dirt of Maryland. Sassafras soils, one of the oldest identifiable American soil groups, drain easily because of clay and silt particles left behind by waterway deposits. Alluvial sediments like these are among the world’s most fertile for growing crops like sweet corn and potatoes, tomatoes, and berries.

About 10 miles as the crow flies from the Chesapeake Bay, two streams, one that feeds Jarmans Branch, run clear through the acreage. The streams are buffered by seeded grass strips about 25 to 30 feet from the ditch out into the field to mitigate erosion. A maritime woodland grove accounts for about 100 out of 700 acres, of which fewer than 600 acres are tillable. When he was a boy, his grandfather dug a maple tree from the woods and planted it behind the farmhouse.

“My dad claims he can remember his dad digging it out of the woods, bringing it up there and planting it 80 years or so ago,” Mason says. Now about four feet in diameter, the maple tree has lost some of its limbs and Mason wonders if its time has come.

His father, William Mason Sr. now 94 years old, still lives in the family’s main farmhouse. “He’s been a big asset to the farm and he still keeps an eye on me every day. You know how fathers are,” Mason says.

Not 30 feet from that farmhouse back door, his father sowed a vegetable garden—about an acre big—planting beans, lima beans, and potatoes.

“I remember my dad loved growing potatoes,” Mason says. With his siblings—including two sisters—Mason helped take care of the family’s large produce garden.

“We always helped my mom take care of the garden. Our dad would plant it but most of the rest of it was left to us kids to take care of it. We weeded it and picked the beans—and I remember snapping the beans at the kitchen table—and things of that nature, picking the strawberries, shelling the lima beans. We continued that for quite a few years.”

The elder Mason always planted an extra acre or two of sweet corn.
“Each summer we would put up sweet corn. He’d go out there on the wagon and take us kids…and we’d pick the biggest pile of corn,” Mason says.

The loaded wagon would be pulled from the field to the backyard where Mason and his brother sat in the shade of the maple tree and husked every ear.

“Mom and my sisters would be inside; they’d be cutting it off the cob and putting it in the bags. It would be an all day job. All farmers did that, we harvested our food and put it in our freezer,” Mason says.

As kids, their other job was feeding the chickens.

“Every spring we bought 100 to 200 baby chicks…biddies we used to call them,” Mason says. “Our job during the summer was to take care of these chickens. Feed them and water them and when the storms came up we had to get them into the hen house. I remember doing that for quite a few years. Late summer, early fall, they would harvest the chickens. They would kill ’em and clean ’em and put them in the freezer for food for all that winter and the next summer; and we would do that again.”

Growing vegetables and raising chickens was one part of the subsistence-based lifestyle the Masons shared with other farming families in the 1950s and ’60s. Raising dairy cows, beef cows, and hogs were another.

“We had a couple large freezers—you put your beef and pork in there. When my mom went to the store, she came home with two-three bags of groceries and that would last us a week for six of us because we had so much in the freezer. We were not unique in that because most farmers did the same thing,” Mason says.

“When we were large enough to help with hay we would be getting up hay; and, then we moved right in to the milking barn. We started down there when we small, but, as we graduated, we learned how to wash the cows, and put the milkers on ’em. Of course, when we were small we had the regular milk cans, like all farmers had, and we’d dump the milk cans and put it in the cooler,” Mason says. “A big step for us, and for many farmers, was the milk tank. We would dump the milk right into the milk tank—I think it was 400 gallons—and it had its own little refrigerator on it. Every couple of days the milkman would come. I remember when I was small, every farm on this road had dairy cows, now there’s no dairy cows on this road.”

The tidewater brogue that ripples through East Coast regions from the Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina’s Outer Banks trickles into the mainstream through Mason’s hoi toider voice. It’s anything but commonplace around these parts, as idiomatic to his personality as his thumbprint is to his hand. And though his farm is one of hundreds mapping Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Mason family’s ties to their lands—established more than 100 years ago—are uniquely their own too.