Nick’s Organic Farm and Climate Change: How we adapt to changing weather and try to reduce the factors contributing to climate change

Extreme weather is real and has gotten progressively worse in just the past decade. We have been farming organically for forty years.  It used to be farmers would hope for a “good” year—now we hope for a “normal” year.  We get whipsawed between a cool wet spring one year and a hot dry spring the next.  We had the wettest year on record in 2018 with twice the normal rainfall, keeping us out of the fields most of the season.

We raise crops and livestock on 175 acres in the fertile Frederick Valley near Buckeystown MD.  Our land is certified organic and protected from development with an easement from the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.  Since purchasing this former dairy farm over twenty years ago, we have seen our practices increase our soil organic matter levels by fifty percent, helping to reduce green house gas by storing more carbon in the soil.

In addition, we have changed our organic practices, in part, to adapt to climate change.  Having started in wholesale organic vegetable production in 1979, we have moved gradually to grains, seeds, feeds, forages, and beef and poultry. One goal in making this transition has been to build the health and resilience of both our soil and farming system in the face of climate change.

The transition allows us to 1) maintain more continuous vegetative cover to prevent soil erosion, 2) plant a very diverse and complementary mix of plant species to increase yields and to hedge against extreme weather, 3) maintain growing roots of multiple interplanted species at all times of year to increase soil enhancing microbiological activity and soil fertility needed to stimulate higher yields, 4) use our pasture grazing animals to accelerate the incorporation of carbon from the air and to store that carbon in the soil, and 5) reduce soil disturbing tillage which gives off greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.  These changes also allow us to build an organic farming system with a broad bio-diversity of crops, animal species, and varied cultural practices, all of which contribute to our 8-12 year crop rotation and pasture based rotation for multi-species livestock grazing.

Specifically, we undertake certain farming practices to build our soil carbon and soil health and thereby make our farming system more resilient to withstand the vagaries of climate change. For our livestock, we limit the number of cattle and poultry on our land so that our pastures do not become weakened by over-grazing, allowing our pastures adequate time to regrow before being grazed again.  We constantly move our livestock to fresh pasture so they have access to the vegetation at the peak of its nutritional value and so the animals evenly spread their soil building manure over the entire farm.  We plant summer annuals and winter annuals directly into our perennial pastures so that we can boost our total yield of forage when seasonal hot or cold weather slows the growth of the underlying grasses and legumes.  In addition, recent research shows that our long-standing practice of feeding sea kelp improves cattle digestion efficiency and consequently reduces by half or more the greenhouse gas methane produced by our herd.

For our crops, we minimize soil tillage and plant no-till whenever possible. We often seed crops and cover crops directly into standing crops and stubble to not disturb the soil and maintain continuous living roots as much as possible.  As a hedge against weather variability, we plant multiple maturities of corn and soybeans and mix multiple species in our hays and pastures so that all of our crops do not depend on optimal weather occurring at the same time. We plant or interplant crops and cover crops in all four seasons to keep living roots and vegetative cover on our soils at virtually all times which builds our soil carbon and guards against soil erosion.  As a result of our practices, despite 2018’s record rains, we still had growing crops everywhere on the farm all year long.

Because of our soil building practices, compared to neighboring farms, our fields hold more moisture in very dry years, giving us better yields.  Our carbon rich and vegetatively covered fields also allow sudden heavy rainfalls to penetrate our soil better, reducing waterlogging of plant roots and stopping soil depleting nutrient runoff, again leading to better yields.  Because we plant a diversity of species together, when hot or dry weather discourages growth in one species, it favors growth in another, helping to maintain overall yields.

Adapting our farming practices to accommodate climate change also required changes in our marketing.  We stopped selling wholesale and started selling our new products to the end user—either another farm or directly to consumers.  We also began producing on-farm value added products.

We selectively improve the breeding of heirloom organic seed stock to sell to small seed companies.  We maintain several open pollinated corn varieties and vegetable soybean varieties. We harvest, clean, and sell non-GMO heirloom food grade corn for grinding, and we grind our whole grain corn on our stone mill to sell cornmeal/polenta.

On the farm, we process our pastured slow growth chickens and heritage and commercial turkeys, and we pack our eggs. We grind and package our field grains to sell livestock feed. We sell hay, baleage and whole feed grains directly to regional organic dairies.  We sell to consumers our 100% grass fed Black Angus beef by the cut, as boxed beef, and as value added products such as jerky and all beef sausages.

While we have transitioned out of fresh vegetables, at any time we can incorporate some of our previous produce back into our crop rotations, starting with sweet corn, green beans, fresh soybeans (edamame), winter squashes, pumpkins and gourds. We would have to increase our work force and marketing, but we have most of the capital intensive infrastructure and equipment still in place from our prior vegetable production.

Nick Maravell, Nick’s Organic Farm, LLC

Interactive Workshop on Regenerative Agriculture, Climate Change and Food

Building Soil at Double Oak Farm: farming for hunger and community supported agriculture at the American Chestnut Land Trust in Calvert County, Maryland
Building Soil at Double Oak Farm: farming for hunger and community supported agriculture at the American Chestnut Land Trust in Calvert County, Maryland

What: National Press Club event with French Ministry of Agriculture to discuss soil carbon sequestration
When: Wednesday, March 9,  8 a.m. – 11 a.m.
Where: The Holeman Lounge at the National Press Club – 529 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20045

The interactive workshop on regenerative agriculture, climate change, and food security is organized by the Organic Consumers Association and Regeneration International. The workshop will discuss the science and management of the remarkable bio-chemical process called carbon sequestration.  Scientists will explain how it works and climate policy experts will describe initiatives to drive the rapid, large-scale, worldwide adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques that can sequester carbon, improve both quantity and quality of foods produced, and concurrently decrease atmospheric CO2.

Some of the speakers include Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, Kristine Nichols, David Johnson, and Richard Teague.

  • Catherine Geslain-Laneelle is Vice Minister of the French Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry.  She will present the 4P1000 Initiative to increase soil carbon content around the world, describe its potential benefits, and explain plans for its implementation.
  • Kristine Nichols is Chief Scientist at the Rodale Institute and has worked with North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown and his regenerative crop and rangeland practices.
  • David Johnson (New Mexico St.) has implemented his Intensive Production system of year-round cropping in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and through it has been able to sequester almost 15 tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year for 5 years.
  • Richard Teague (Texas A&M) has done great work on Sustainable Rangeland Management.

Register for the workshop and also get more information.

Below is a complete list of the workshop speakers:

  1. Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, Vice Minister, French Ministry of Agriculture, Agrifood, and Forestry
  2. Andre Leu, IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Movements – Organics International)
  3. Richard Teague, Ph.D., Texas A&M (Sustainable Rangeland Management)
  4. Kris Nichols, Ph.D., Rodale Institute, Chief Scientis
  5. David C. Johnson, Ph.D., New Mexico State University (Institute of Sustainable Agricultural Research)
  6. Tim LaSalle, Ph.D., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (College of Agricultural, Food, & Environmental Science)

Contact Sudheer Shukla of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate  if you would like more information.(301) 236-5387 (phone), (240) 565-2471 (cell)


Climate Change: Sequestering Carbon the Easy Way

Learn how restoring ecosystems can reverse global warming in 16 years. Plants absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can fix it permanently as carbon in the soil using already proven organic farming practices.
Learn how restoring ecosystems can reverse global warming in 16 years. Plants absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can fix it permanently as carbon in the soil using already proven organic farming practices.

While much attention has been given to stopping global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, little attention has been given to the fact that even if we reduced carbon emissions to zero, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would still remain above 400 ppm and the devastation of global warming would continue. Only if the carbon dioxide concentration is brought down to 350 ppm or below will we be able to return to a comfortable climate again.

The Climate Stewards of Greater Annapolis is holding a program at the Annapolis Friends Meeting House on November 14, 2015. The mini-conference will address how the carbon dioxide concentration can be reduced.

By photosynthesis and fixing the carbon in the soil using organic agricultural systems, carbon dioxide concentration can be potentially reduced to 280 ppm in 16 years,   even with continued emissions from burning fossil fuels, though reducing fossil fuel emissions would certainly help.

The key to increasing carbon fixation in the soil is restoring the micro organisms in the soil that convert some of the plant sugars (from photosynthesis) in the roots into humus, which permanently fix the carbon. Grazing animals on grasslands accelerates the process.

The organization providing the speakers for the program  is Biodiversity for a Livable Climate. The D.C. Chapter is directed by Philip Bogdonoff.  Biodiversity for a Livable Climate has presented other conferences on climate change, carbon sequestration, and organic farming, including, Tufts, Harvard Science Center , and University of the District of Columbia.

Climate Change: Sequestering Carbon the Easy Way is sponsored by the Greater Annapolis Climate Stewards, the Maryland Sierra Club, and the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association, (MOFFA). The program will be  on Saturday afternoon, November 14 at 2 PM. For further information, contact Dick Vanden Heuvel,  410-267-9009.

Is Your Farm Climate-Ready? Best Practices for Managing Climate Risk on Your Farm

Laura Lengnick
Laura Lengnick, Director, Sustainable Agriculture Program, Department of Environmental Studies, Warren Wilson College, will present: Is Your Farm Climate Ready? Best Practices for Managing Climate Risk on Your Farm at the MOFFA Winter Meeting, on February 16, 2013, from 8 to 5.

Are you prepared to manage the increased weather variability and extremes that are currently underway and predicted to intensify in the coming years as our planet warms?  Over the next 10 to 15 years, projected changes in precipitation and temperature patterns will increase water and pest management challenges and the potential for crop failure.

Laura Lengnick will present a new way of thinking about climate risk and offers some best practices for managing climate risk challenges on your farm, at the  MOFFA Annual Winter Meeting.

The  event is February 16, 2013, at the MD Dept. of Agriculture Bldg., Annapolis MD  it will run from 8 to 5. Laura  Lengnick will speak from 3:35 to 4:30.

Laura serves as the Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Program, in the Department of Environmental Studies at Warren Wilson College, a small undergraduate college near Asheville, NC offering a liberal arts education through a triad of academics, work and service.  Since joining the Warren Wilson faculty in 2002, Laura has been actively involved in sustainable agriculture advocacy in North Carolina: she is currently on the Carolina Farm Stewardship board of directors and is a past president and board member of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.  Laura advises and teaches in several community-based sustainable agriculture education programs and works with a number of citizens groups on issues around sustainable food systems, sustainable resource use and resilient community redesign.  She brings to this work 25 years of research, teaching and public policy experience in soil quality and sustainability assessment, sustainable agriculture systems, and sustainable farm management.

Trained as a soil scientist, Laura’s work in sustainable production systems research at the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center was nationally recognized with a USDA Secretary’s Honor Award in 2000.  She has federal agriculture policy expertise gained through work experiences as a U.S. Senate staffer, as a research scientist serving in the Executive Branch of the federal government, and as a private consultant and lobbyist advocating for sustainable and organic farmers in the U.S. Congress.  While on sabbatical in 2011/12 as a visiting scientist on the USDA National Program Staff, Laura researched best practices for adapting agriculture to climate change as a lead author of the recently released USDA Report “Climate Change and U.S. Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation”.  Laura’s work on the report included a focus on identifying effective practices for farmers faced with managing the increased variability in temperature and rainfall, extreme weather events and novel pest pressures associated with the climate change impacts currently underway in the U.S.

Click here to find more details about MOFFA Annual Winter Meeting.

MOFFA – Lets Get Out the Organic Vote

Tom Harbold at a draft-horse driving workshop Carroll County Farm Museum, in Westminster, Maryland
Tom Harbold at a draft-horse driving workshop Carroll County Farm Museum, in Westminster, Maryland

Listen. Hear that? Nope, me neither. It’s the deafening silence, from both sides of the political aisle, on issues of agriculture and the environment. Yes, I know that “it’s the economy, stupid.” As someone who is badly under-employed, and searching – so far unsuccessfully – for a position which will enable me to make a living by doing some good in the world, I am all too personally aware of the miserable state of our economy, as the year 2012 limps to a close, and of the need to find a way to recover.

That said, ignoring the environment in favor of the economy is a prescription for disaster, long-term. Please excuse me for a brief diversion into linguistics: “economy” is based on the Greek words “oikos,” meaning “household,” plus “nomos,” meaning “rule” or “management.” “Ecology” combines “household” with “logos,” meaning (in this context), “knowledge.” It makes not just linguistic but also practical sense to place knowledge of one’s household before management of it. Yet politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to try to manage the economy while remaining woefully, and willfully, ignorant of the ecology.

Furthermore, we live in a closed, finite system. Except for solar energy – sunlight, without which, so far as we know, no life could exist (except, perhaps, for some weird types near thermal vents in the deep ocean) – and occasional meteors, the only resources we possess are the ones contained on and within this planet. We have no other options. The bottom line is that the Earth is the bottom line. Yet   the Obama administration is strangely silent on issues of the environment – or perhaps not so strangely, considering the number of individuals with ties to Monsanto that riddle it – while candidate Mitt Romney has openly mocked environmental concerns.

Referencing Obama’s assertion in his 2008 nomination acceptance speech that “We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment … when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” – words which, in retrospect, look more than a trifle optimistic – Romney declared that “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans,” pausing for the obligatory moment of laughter, “and to heal the planet. My promise … is to help you and your family.” While he may simply have meant that his ambitions were less grandiose, his comment left the clear implication that these are alternatives, between which we must choose.

The reality is that we are at a point in the history of humankind on Planet Earth where any attempt to help people and families must take into account the health and well-being of the local and planetary environment, or be doomed to failure. While economic stability is an important component of the sustainability equation (see this or other discussions of the “triple bottom line” – people, planet, and profits:, we are past the point where economics can safely be considered as something apart from, and mutually irrelevant to, ecology.

In a recent essay for the Scripps Howard News Service, columnist Bonnie Erbe has written about the economic consequences of several current and pending environmental issues, especially global climate change. These include a European study which indicates that climate change is already contributing to 400,000 deaths each year, worldwide, and costing the world’s economy more than $1.2 trillion, and the fact that in 2010, the International Displacement Monitoring Center estimated that more that 42 million people were forced to flee their homes due to disasters triggered by sudden-onset natural hazards.

Furthermore, a University of British Columbia study found that ocean fish could soon lose as much as 25% of their body weight, because they cannot maintain their weight in warming waters. The potential consequences to our food supply need no elaboration from me. MOFFA members are already well aware of the challenges to farming posed by climate change, including new and different insect pests – notably the marmorated stinkbug – as well as weather extremes ranging from droughts to flooding.

Regardless of whether one believes these events, and the climate change that causes them, are primarily anthropogenic (human-generated), primarily natural and cyclical, or something somewhere in between, they exist, and we have to deal with their consequences. Organic growers also have the deal with the consequences of the widespread use of GMOs, and the tremendous financial weight that can be brought to bear on the political process by their manufacturers, most notably Monsanto.

This election year we are electing not only a President, but one-third of our Senators and all of our Congressional Representatives. An article in Yes! Magazine ( notes that

“the House version of the 2012 Farm Bill contains three industry-friendly provisions, numbered 10011, 10013, and 10014. Collectively, they have come to be known as the “Monsanto Rider,” and the name is entirely appropriate. If passed, this bill would make it more difficult to stem the tide of GMO foods hitting store shelves.

These three provisions in the 2012 Farm Bill would grant regulatory powers solely to the United States Department of Agriculture, preventing other federal agencies from reviewing GMO applications and preventing the USDA from accepting outside money for further study. The bill would also shorten the deadline for approval [from three years] to one year, with an optional 180-day extension. And here’s the kicker: the approval time bomb. If the USDA misses the truncated review deadline, the GMO in question is granted automatic approval.”

Yes, you read correctly. If the USDA does not have time to test and approve a proposed GMO in half the time it has now, that genetically-modified product is automatically approved as safe without any testing at all. Our Representatives need to hear from us – all of us – that this is not acceptable, and that a “yes” vote on a Bill containing these measures will carry consequences.

There is much to think about, as we move toward the 2012 elections. While the hands of the current administration are far from clean, when it comes to agriculture and the environment, its history and possible future actions must be weighed against the likely even greater deference shown to corporate interests should Obama’s opponent be elected to the Presidency. There are pluses and minuses to every choice, political and otherwise, of course; it is unlikely that anyone will agree with any candidate on every issue. But at least the elections do give us a chance to make our voices heard, and so far, at least, big-money interests have not managed to totally silence the voices of “we the people.”

Let’s get out there and exercise our franchise!

Tom Harbold writes from Hampstead, MD. Contact him at