Growing food on a farm for the Bay
Tour shows farmers how the Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm addresses water quality while growing vegetables for a CSA, food bank
Carrie Vaughn, vegetable production manager at Clagett Farm, started a tour of its 285-acre grounds with a question for the farmers who showed up on the last afternoon in August.
Why, she asked the group of nearly 50 people, did they think she grew vegetables on scattered plots that total 20 acres instead of in one spot?
Soil nutrients? Rotational plantings following the farm’s cattle?
“It has a lot to do with terrain,” Vaughn said after hearing several close-but-not-quite guesses. “The vegetables are all on flat spaces, and the No. 1 reason is erosion.”
When the Clagett family donated this land in Upper Marlboro, MD, to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 1982, it, like many farms in this region, grew mostly tobacco. The soil had been plowed “from hilltop to stream edge” for years, Vaughn said, so “all the topsoil that would have been here is at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Vaughn explained this and other details about the farm’s operation to a group of farmers and farm-minded enthusiasts during a tour Monday hosted by Chesapeake Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT); Future Harvest, a Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA); and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The groups have collaborated on several farm tours this summer, giving farmers who are growing primarily for local markets the opportunity to network and learn from one another’s operations.
Vaughn started out the Clagett Farm tour by acknowledging how its operation and goals are different from those of other farms. At this farm run by a Bay-minded nonprofit, it’s No. 1 goal is to not only produce food, but to improve water quality in the process. Spreading tillable vegetable plots throughout the property is one way the farm works toward that goal.
Along with vegetables, Clagett Farm grows grass for about 60 grazing beef cattle and a handful of sheep. Vaughn’s husband Rob manages a native tree nursery on about an acre of the grounds that produces trees for CBF’s riparian plantings across the watershed. And the farm is home base for several educational field programs that bring students and teachers out to see a farm that grows food with the Bay in mind.
About half of the farm’s produce is sold through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program with 270 members, primarily from the Upper Marlboro area, who pick up their weekly shares of produce at the farm.
The other half of its produce is donated to the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., as it has been for 20 years. In that way, the farm “blends local, sustainable organic agriculture with social justice,” its website reads. “We’ve had a mission to donate food since the beginning,” Vaughn said.
The farm employs several people in the peak summer months and receives about 5,000 hours of work from volunteers to achieve that mission.
The farm is certified organic and, though it makes use of “vintage” tractors and other equipment, it deploys several practices that require more labor than similar-sized farms.
Vaughn said the operation’s productivity is heavily dependent on the weather, since it uses little more than two residential wells for irrigation. “We have a little water we use to keep things alive but not at maximum productivity,” Vaughn said. Last year, Clagett Farm harvested 91,000 pounds of vegetables, and Vaughn thinks a hot August will result in a little less than that this year.
Vaughn ceded the floor to a representative from the Capital Area Food Bank, Kevin Longhany, who encouraged the farmers in attendance to consider how they could donate or sell produce to their local food banks, too.
“As your farms are growing and developing, we just want to be on your radar,” Longhany said. “There are ways we can make sure the produce doesn’t go to waste and that it feeds people who are hungry.”