QUEENSTOWN — Thanks to modern technology, the Maryland House of Delegates Environment and Transportation Committee met with agricultural stakeholders and Maryland farmers for a virtual farm tour on Dec. 17. Normally, our agricultural organizations host tours in the fall, said Jenell Eck with the Maryland Grain Producers. And while virtual is not the same as being on the farms, said Chairman Kumar Barve, the virtual tour was very informative.
The tour hosted 25 live attendees and 45 live streamers, as the committee saw 2020 corn harvest and cover crop planting in action, toured a poultry operation, and learned about organic grain farming and a direct-to-consumer produce market. The agriculture tour was developed by the Maryland Grain Producers in partnership with the Delmarva Chicken Association and MidAtlantic Farm Credit, and can be viewed online.
John Bruning, a farmer from Worcester County works with his uncle, to produce corn, barley, soybeans, and wheat. Bruning showed the committee the difference no-till and cover crops can make to improve soil health.
Located in Hurlock, Jason Scott grows grain with his parents and sells Pioneer Seed. Scott took the committee on a combine ride and shared about nutrient management. Nearby, also in Dorchester County, Mary Lou Brown and her daughter Ashely, demonstrated how they raise broilers in six houses for a contract company. The tour ended in Ruthsburg at an organic grain farm, Mason’s Heritage which also has a produce stand for local consumers. Bill Mason alongside Kate and Stephan Kraszewski run the farm and produce operation.
After the virtual tour, legislatures and farmers had the opportunity to discuss important topics. The committee was interested in no-till farming, especially in an organic operation. Kraszewski explained how tillage is used for weed control in their organic corn and how they’re growing no-till organic soybeans. Bruning whose farm is near the Chincoteague Bay discussed how no-till allows him to conserve moisture and increase organic matter in his sandy soils.
Participating in the Q&A segment, Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (District-15) asked about pest management. Scott explained Walnut Hill’s practice of integrated pest management including; scouting, genetically modified seed, as well as the timing of planting and pesticides when necessary to control pests in his crop fields.
When it comes to producing row crops across the state, yield monitors are a popular technology. Scott also shared how his family has utilized monitoring and mapping technology since 2000. These maps allow him to implement variable rate seeding and nutrient application.
“This is high tech! Impressive,” Delegate Regina T. Boyce (District-43 said.
As we all know, 2020 was an interesting year. The pandemic has changed operations and markets across the world. Legislators heard from farmers how COVID-19 impacted their families. For grain farmers in Maryland, the commodity prices were very low at the beginning of the year as a result of COVID-19 and international trade. At the beginning of August, China purchased a large amount of U.S. crops due to the drought in South America. Between international purchases and the Derecho storm in the Midwest, prices increased during harvest 2020, which was much appreciated by farmers.
Jenell Eck, employee with Maryland Grain Producers who also owns a direct-to-consumer beef operation in Queen Anne’s County, stated they have seen a large increase in sales due to grocery store shelves going empty creating an increase in local demand. From the local chicken industry aspect, Brown said she believes the poultry industry has figured out the kinks in the processing plants and distribution and that the processing employees now “feel safer going to work than almost anywhere else.”
For many farmers rural broadband and internet connectivity continues to be a challenge and the committee wanted to know how they can better serve the rural and agricultural community. Brown utilizes the internet to view her six poultry house controllers to see how her house environment and chicken well-being is when off the farm and coverage can be unreliable. Lindsay Thompson added that Maryland is less competitive for federal grants for broadband infrastructure due to the percentage of internet coverage in Maryland as a whole compared to other, more rural states.
The virtual tour ended with a strong discussion on producing and selling more local foods to our communities. Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo asked about programs that support local production and sale of food.
Holly Porter with Delmarva Chicken Association pointed out that Maryland is fortunate in that the chicken they buy at the grocery store is local. Mason Farms Produce spoke about how federal grants allowed them to install high tunnels to extend their growing season. For a direct to consumer beef operation, Eck noted the need for more processing capacity and inspection.
Mason encouraged legislators to support the Maryland Department of Agriculture, specifically the Maryland Best Program, as well as the local soil conservation districts to continue best management practices on all operations.
The Maryland Grain Producers Association is a membership organization of grain producers across the state. The organization’s major role is to act as a vote for grain farmers, mostly through its legislative activities both at the state and federal level.