Monday, June 13, 2011

It doesn't rain in the summer in Maryland anymore...

As we enter our 5 straight year of summer drought here in Maryland, every day I read about extreme weather all around the country and the world.

I wonder how people can still blindly deny that climate change (or global weirding as I like to call it) doesn't exist when the evidence is all around us? Of course, some of that is this misnomer of 'global warming' which oversimplifies the idea that global weather patterns will become more erratic and extreme.

All around us is news of extreme weather - tornados in Maryland and Massachusetts, flooding up and down the Mississipi River and droughts and wildfires in Texas and Arizona.

Of course for us, rain equals grass, which is what our ruminants eat. Without it, we end up having to feed hay.

This past spring, all we had was rain and more rain. But for the past month, we've had nothing but extremely high temps and no rain.

For the last 3 years, we've fed hay every July and August.

What that means of course is higher costs for us and our customers.

So far, this year looks no different than the previous four - a very wet winter and spring with bitter cold and heavy snowfall, followed by hot, very dry summer months.

This changes our business model into one where supplemental feed is require for 6 or more months out of the year - winter and summer.

Also, because our animals are coming out of a very dry summer season, they eat down the fall flush and we have no 'stockpiled' grass for early winter grazing.

As farmers, we watch the weather every day and right now, we're praying for rain!

We've had nothing but heat and dry weather for over 3 weeks now, the pastures are starting to brown, and the sheep and goats are hungry! I look forward to the months of July and August with a vague sense of dread :(

Friday, June 10, 2011

Organic certification

Recently, Will and I have been looking at our operation mercilessly to try and find a way to be profitable and more sustainable.

When I say sustainable, what I am specifically referring to is our sustainability as farmers in residence recognizing that the farmer is our most valuable asset. Too many long hours and hard work for little or no profit, and too many things we don't enjoy because they have nothing to do with farming.

One area that has dogged me since day one was our organic certification. Initially, more of an annoyance than anything else, I dutifully filled out the voluminous application each year and sent my $500 check in.

Considering that the whole 'organic' production model was the home of small producers (commonly less than 10 acres) from its birth in the 60's until about 10 years ago when it became a label regulated by the USDA (via the NOP = National Organic Program), I found the application to be incredibly annoying.

'Please record how many tons of each vegetable produced' was a pretty typical entry requirement.

'Just cross out ton and put in bushels', was the advice I gave our gardener Kyle when he asked what to do with a confused look.

Initially, our annual certification inspection involved a pleasant fellow, who would come by, look around a bit, ask some appropriate questions, and usually leave with the comment 'try and improve your record-keeping'.

Since then, there have been several well-known scandals involving large-scale producers caught cheating in their organic production.

Organic production has been increasingly annexed by the likes of WalMart and CISCO, who by their very business model, do not exemplify the ideals of organic production.

Large scale producers have gotten into the equation, trying to meet the demands of ridiculously low-prices and high production volumes of these kinds of retailers.

In response, the volume and voracity of NOP paperwork and oversight has skyrocketed, and Maryland has been no exception. The USDA regulates/sets the rules for organic production via the NOP, but the states are required for administering, regulating, and inspecting their own producers.

Our new inspector and program director for the entire state of Maryland, sort of embodies the very worst that one can associate with the words 'government bureaucrat'. Now don't get me wrong, he's a nice enough person I'm sure, but as an inspector and representative of the organic program in Maryland...well, not so much.

Very little money was provided to the states for the NOP program, despite all of the huge subsidies provided to commercial farming in this country, so there is no real motivation in seeing the success of organic production in Maryland as things currently stand.

The numbers tell the story - after the initial bump of certifications at the initiation of the program about 10 years ago, the numbers of organic producers continues to decline in Maryland even with the introduction of new producers.

In order to improve my quality of life, Will and I have decided to no longer bother with the organic certification process and focus our attention on something that no factory farm/large-scale producer can provide: high quality, locally-produced food for our customers.

Of course, we won't actually be doing anything differently than we currently do, but I figure we'll save several hundred hours of time spent filling out paperwork and ridiculous documentation to meet the NOP monster's insatiable appetite.

This is time I can spend with the animals, working in the garden, and visiting with customers, some of my favorite things!


Kent & Will

Friday, April 29, 2011

Shearing Day at Whitmore Farm

While we specialize in Katahdin hair sheep at Whitmore Farm, we recently started experimenting with some wool/hair crosses to see how this would affect the carcass quality of our animals as well as the flavor of our meat.

We decided to start by adding a Texel ram from our friend and well-known Texel breeder, Bev Pearsall. Lucky for us, she had a nice ram born with a big brown spot on his jawline, an unforgivable fault by the Texel breed standard.

Interestingly, we saw a lot of 'colored' Texels (gray, brown, tan, even spotted) during our visit to Holland last Fall, but white is still the standard for the breed both here in the U.S. and Holland. Considering that our flock of katahdins has a TON of color in it, you can surmise how much I like color in sheep.

Anyways, being a wool sheep, Arnold develops a very healthy coat during winter and needs to be sheared in order to maintain his comfort during Maryland's hot summer months. The wool is of a poor quality and has no real value in spinning.

So earlier this month, we held our First Annual Shearing Day at Whitmore Farm to shear one animal...Arnold.

Technically, this was our 2nd annual shearing day as last year I trimmed Arnold. Afterwards, we decided rather than being called 'shearing day', we would call it Bloody Sunday. No arterial bleeders and nothing that couldn't be fixed with some suture and a lot of blood-stop powder.

I offered to do it again this year, but for some reason Will was reluctant....

Luckily for us, Amy Miller, a local shearer, was available and willing to come out and spend a few hours fussing over our ram, and as it turns outs, one of our Great Pyrenees who was in desperate need of a clipping.

'I may just start a dog grooming business on the side' Amy added after clipping Ween down to a soft, clean summer cut.

Life & death on the farm

When people ask me about what its like to run a farm, one of the things that comes to mind right away is the constant cycle of life and death. Every day, animals die from accidents, disease, or your hand and there are some days when it seems that's all you have - death, death, and more death.

Sometimes it seems the animals spend their days finding creative ways to die.

Here's a fine example that greeted us the other morning - just what you want to see with your morning cup of joe in hand:


Sassy, a very sweet 5 year old doe was feeding, and one of our pushier ewes had tried to feed along side each other in the same spot on the feeder. Their heads slid down and locked in between the two bars of the feeder and they strangled each other.

Just like that, two excellent animals were dead. I'm going to carry around this photo for the next time someone says sheep and goats aren't stupid animals!

But then, lo and behold, one of our gilts who had been teetering on farrowing (i.e. pigging or having piglets) popped! 3 squirmy little piglets (and one dead one) were tucked away in one of our shelters on pasture.

We bundled them up with straw and a tarp and left them to get comfy with their dame.

'So how do we get the dead one out?' I asked innocently enough.

NB:Whenever we got near the entrance to her den, the sow literally growled at us like a tiger about to pounce!

'We'll wait until she leaves to poo and Steve, you'll dash in there and grab it!' I suggested.

Steve just swallowed and looked frightened.

Sure enough, a few hours later she was out.

'Quick! Now's our chance! I'll keep lookout....go, go go!' Steve dashed in and frantically searched the bedding for the dead animal.

'Check the sexes on the piglets while you're in there!', I added.

'There's no piglet', he cries out.

'I can't find it', he says.

'Where's that sow?' he asks, his question tinged with apprehension.

'Oh she's far away', I add.

NB: pigs lumber along and seem impossibly large and clumsy, but when they want to, they are greased lightening and can easily outrun a human.

'Well then, she must have ate it', I surmised. Yuck.

A few days later, one of our GOS sows farrowed for 11 healthy piglets, no stillbirths. She was gentle and sweet with the farmer and her piglets, and the thoughts of death from earlier in the week quickly passed as we watched the wee ones play and suckle.

'They are SOOOOO cute!' I say, I say with a smile as I watch them climb over each other.

'And they'll be delicious some day!' adds Will.

Friday, April 8, 2011


If you live in Maryland, please contact your state delegate and senator regarding this issue!

Dear Kent,

Thank you very much for taking the time to contact me regarding, HB1261 - Maryland's Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act. It is great to see Frederick County residents getting active in the process with issues that are important to them!

Unfortunately, this bill was submitted to the House Rules Committee on February 22 and has not been assigned another committee in which to receive a hearing. It looks unlikely that it will make it through the legislative process this year. Hopefully, the bill will be reintroduced next year and will get the public hearing that I am sure that it deserves.

Please feel free to contact me with any additional questions or concerns.

With Best Regards,
Delegate Kelly Schulz
District 4A, Frederick County Maryland
301-858-3080 or 410-841-3080
6 Bladen Street, Suite 324
Annapolis, MD 21401

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maryland HB 1261, Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act

Delegate Afzali

Delegate Schulz

Maryland House of Delegates

March 31, 2011

Dear Delegate,

I run a small organic farming operation in Frederick County and I am

writing to ask your support and co-sponsorship of H.B. 1261, Maryland's

Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act.

This bill simply requires that foods containing more than 1% genetically

engineered ingredients be labeled as such. I think the last study I looked

at showed that 88% of Americans support this kind of labeling.

We label foods containing all kinds of things like MSG, aspartame, and

corn syrup but not so for GMO products.

Recently, experiences in Pennsylvania regarding the use of growth hormone

in cows showed strong public support of labeling of milk produced using


Unfortunately, the federal government has refused to require this kind of

labeling. The U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A. continue to approve new G.M.O.'s

like alfalfa even with inadequate long-term health studies and the risks

of contamination of non-GMO seed banks.

Please co-sponsor this bill and let consumers decide whether they want to

eat GMO-containing products using their pocketbook.


Kent Ozkum

Whitmore Farm

10720 Dern Road

Emmitsburg, MD 21727

Friday, March 25, 2011

Are the USDA & Monsanto the same organization?

I would argue 'yes'.

For many years, there has been a very cozy relationship between industrial agriculture and the management of the USDA. The most obvious example of this has been the movement of executives between industrial-farming corporations like Monsanto and the USDA.

Back in 2008, when Tom Vilsack was nominated as the new Secretary of Agriculture, he came with a resume that spoke volumes as to what the USDA might look like under his watch:

1. Former governor of Iowa with a track record of supporting genetically-modified crops.

2. Awarded the 'governor of the year' award by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industrial-farming lobbying group.

3. Founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.

4. Supporter of cloning of dairy cows as a vehicle for economic development.

5. Originated House Bill 671 and Senate Bill 631 in 2005 whose purpose was aim to prevent towns, counties or cities from passing any ordinance, regulation or resolution to control any kind of plant or plant pest (including invasive plant species).

These bills became known as the 'Monsanto Bills' because they usurped local government's right to try and regulate GMO products if the USDA did not. Representative Sandy Greiner, the Republican sponsor of the bill, bragged that Vilsack had put her up to writing this bill shortly after he was elected governor.

6. Vilsack has always been a strong supporter of Monsanto and commonly traveled on Monsanto jets during his 2006 presidential bid.

7. Vilsack strongly supports the use of corn and soy to produce biofuels, even though their production uses as much fossil fuel as they generate. This is a huge money-maker for factory farming in the U.S. and also drives up food prices unnecessarily. Former chair of the Governors' Ethanol Coalition.

On Thursday of last week, the USDA announced approval for unrestricted planting of GMO alfalfa produced by Monsanto and Forge Genetics throughout the United States. As one of the leading feed crops produced, if you eat meat or dairy, you will indirectly consume alfalfa.

Aside from being the fourth largest feed crop in the U.S., alfalfa is notoriously promiscuous with pollen being carried for up to 5 miles by pollinating insects. This means there will be no functional way to prevent GMO genetics from spreading to non-GMO products, the genetic leak that I have discussed in previous postings.

USDA-certified organic products do not allow the intentional or unintentional use of GMO products in their production.

Recently, Sharon Bomer, an executive vice president with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, stated that while there was a 'deep appreciation' within the industry to minimize the spread of genetic material, 'the burden is on them' (organic producers) to protect their crops.

Previous experience with copyright-protected crops have shown that when genetics leak into adjacent fields thru wind and other natural processes, companies like Monsanto do not hesitate to sue for copyright-infringement and theft of genetic materials.

For two years, Vilsak has been promising a way for organics and GMO plants to coexist.

Earlier, the USDA had said that it was considering one of three options:
(1) complete deregulation of GM alfalfa
(2) allowing its planting but requiring five-mile buffer strips between it and non-GMO alfalfa
(3) allowing unrestricted planting except in seed-growing regions to prevent contamination.

When news of Vilsack's considerations made their way to the halls of Congress, Republican lawmakers and conservative organizations were highly critical. On Jan. 19, congressional Republicans told Vilsack that the idea of restricting GE alfalfa was “troubling" and on Jan. 20, there was more of the same from the House Agriculture Committee.

During the 3 weeks that followed, the USDA approved the use of GMO alfalfa, beets, and corn.

GMO alfalfa has been designed to resist the effects of the herbicide Roundup. Previous experience with this overuse of herbicide has been the proliferation of superweeds, or weeds similarly-resistant to the effects of Roundup, in a relatively short period of time. With the release of GMO alfalfa, it is estimated that an additional 23 million pounds of Roundup will be applied to the environment per annum.

Consumer protection, environmental, organic producer, and food safety organizations have filed suit to prevent the release of these products. However, given the certainty and speed of genetic leak, once GMO-alfalfa is released, there is no way to take back what we have put into the genetic swimming pool of our environment.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The season of mud

One thing you learn quickly when living and working on the farm is to not only to read the weather but also the soil. The weather, aside from affecting your personal comfort and what you should wear, also affects the soil.

You spend a lot of time deciding what your soil will be doing on any particular day based on the weather and what you are hoping to do.

We are currently entering what we call the 'season of mud'.

The red clay of Frederick County, while rich in micronutrients and minerals, has all the negatives of most clay soils. When wet, the small molecules lay flat and hold water between these layers. This slippery, gooey mess is what most people refer to as mud.

Later in the summer, when the heat and droughts that have plagued us for the past 5 years have removed all the moisture in the soil, we have what most people would refer to as a brick.

We learned this lesson the hard way a few years back when we were trying to drive fence posts in the summer. ' You can't build fences this time of year' said one of our neighbors, 'It's not fence season.'

Fence season !? Huh? Did we need a permit?

Not sure what they were talking about, we merrily went on with our plans to knock off a large section of fencing using an auger and some really nice black locust posts we had to order to West Virginia.

[As an aside, in olden times, posts were commonly made out of local rot resistant woods like black locust, osage orange, and eastern red cedar prior to the advent of pressure treated pine. Pressure-treated lumber has been on the market for about 60 years and for most of that time, was treated with arsenic to preserve the wood, obviously unacceptable to us as organic, all-natural producers. In 2002, to address the dangers of arsenic leaching into soils and exposure from direct contact, pressure treatment was converted to a highly-concentrated copper or ACQ compound. These compounds address the dangers of arsenic poisoning but have other issues related to corrosion of metals coming in direct contact with them]

Two auger bits and about an hour later, we had successfully placed one post - only 2000 more to go! Clearly, this was not going to work!

So we waited, and in the fall, after a few good rainfalls, when the air was crisp and the ground had softened but was dry enough to take heavy machinery on it, we rented a fence post driver and tried again. The pounder, a beautiful piece of machinery, held the post in position behind our tractor and then slammed down onto the top of the post over and over again.

We watched with amazement as the post slid gently and smoothly into place in a matter of about 15 or 20 seconds! A day later and we had placed hundreds of posts without so much as breaking a sweat (or an auger bit).

A few years later, I was talking with one of my sheep customers on a hot August day. 'Anything interesting planned for the weekend?' I asked. 'Oh, I plan on doing some fence posts', he replied.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Farm Bureau and the Chesapeake - good steward of the land?

I read with dismay the Frederick News Post’s January 23rd article announcing the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) lawsuit to block EPA’s plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The Farm Burea’s plan: to continue the status quo of voluntary, non-binding best management practices (BMPs), that after 26 years of implementation have resulted in a watershed that only scores a 31 out of 100 in the 2010 State of the Bay report.

What does AFBA’s action say? It illustrates how closely the organization has aligned itself with industrial agriculture and at the same time alienated both consumers of their products and the sustainable agriculture community. As a farmer it is disheartening to see the Farm Bureau distort the facts and stand by industrial farms thereby soiling the reputation of the rest of the agriculture community. The thrust of AFBA’s lawsuit challenges the scientific validity of EPA’s pollution diet. You can tweak the input parameters in EPA’s complex model all you want, but the story won’t change: agriculture is a major contributor of damaging nutrients and agriculture needs to do more.

All you have to do is take a drive in the country to see examples of farms that are not doing their fair share to reduce runoff of nutrients from their fields. This is a good time of year to see barren fields without any green winter cover crop. You can also see some farmers spreading manure on frozen ground. Come spring, the drainage ditches around those fields will run orange/brown, transporting sediments laden with nutrients into the Bay. When summer arrives, take another drive in the country and you’ll likely come across cows standing in streams. Unfortunately, they don’t hold it like humans in a swimming pool would. You’ll also notice some crops growing right next to stream banks with no buffer strips. Buffer strips filter the flow of nutrients into the Bay.

In October of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a draft report on the “Assessment of the Effects of Conservation Practices on Cultivated Cropland in the Chesapeake Region.” This exhaustive report represents the most comprehensive evaluation to date of farm activities as they relate to nutrient loadings to the Bay. This study found that “81 percent of the cultivated cropland acres require additional nutrient management to reduce the loss of nitrogen or phosphorus from fields.” In other words, farmers are implementing all the recommended, voluntary best management practices for only 19% of cropland. Only 1 in 5 acres is being managed responsibly. This is not what I would call “good stewardship” of the land.

I am a farmer in Frederick County, Maryland. Our farm is bordered by a tributary on two sides, which feeds any runoff into the Monocacy, the Potomac, and finally the Bay. Our watershed is one of many in the region that are exceeding water quality standards for nutrients. We have been implementing all the voluntary BMPs recommended by the MD Department of Environment. Although there is some financial and technical assistance from the state, implementing these BMPs still cost us in time, money and some land is taken out of production. We view it as the cost of doing business. All the organic and sustainable farms I know follow similar practices, but then again, we aren’t members of the Farm Bureau.

Editorial Section, Frederick News Post, Sunday, by William.