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