We need to change the way we farm

There are several things that are changing that require us to farm in ways that most farmers don't do today. The energy we use to run our farm machinery is continuing to increase. Farmers plow the fields, disc, rake, plant, cultivate, apply pesticides and herbicides, irrigate and harvest the crop. There is a need to decrease these steps to save energy, keep the costs of farming down, improve our environment and still provide affordable food to feed the world.

There has been much discussion about fossil fuels that someday will run out. Burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming and the costs of fossil fuels will continue to rise.

Other direct costs to farmers are fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. These are all made from fossil fuels. Commercial fertilizers release nitrous oxide-a greenhouse gas-into the air.

Any unused fertilizer either becomes runoff or soaks into the ground and ends up in groundwater which will, at some point, be released into streams. The excess nitrogen adds to the woes of the Chesapeake Bay by aiding algae growth.

I don't think we know enough about what pesticides and herbicides are doing to the environment. They are being looked at as a possible cause of CCD (colony collapse disorder) which is causing the loss of honey bees.

Native Americans learned that planting fish along with their seeds could produce a better crop. They also learned that continuing this practice left too much oil in the soil and reversed their crop gain. They had to change growing fields for a while until the oil dissipated.

Early settlers soon found that if they continued to grow tobacco on the same ground, year after year, they saw a poorer crop. They found that if they let the land lay fallow for a few years, they could go back and plant tobacco again.

When we apply commercial fertilizers to crop residues, they decompose faster and thus do not add humus to the soil. There is also the prospect of using crop residues for the production of ethanol. This, too, would subtract from the plants ability to add organic matter to the soil.

We can't hope that growing crops for ethanol is the answer to our energy problems. We can already see what it has done to food prices.

We need to learn to not waste things. Animal manure has its place in farming if it is done right. When applied directly to fields, some will wash off into the streams before it can be an effective soil builder. Before manure is applied, it should be composted to some degree to reduce the amount of nitrogen. What is left will add much carbon to the soil. This is aerobic (with oxygen) composting.

There is also anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion. It produces methane gas, which can be used as fuel and also removes some nitrogen.

Either method should be used before depositing manure on farm land.

We have learned that we can grow cover crops that capture nutrients and add humus to the soil. Much of the soil we have today does not have much humus. Some of the earth we use for planting is just a medium to hold up the plants while we feed them synthetic commercial fertilizer.

We can do the same thing with hydroponics. We can grow plants in sand or poke the roots through holes in plastic sheets and spray the roots with water and nutrients.

We need to practice farming methods that increase the humus in the soil. We also need to plant species that sequester nitrogen and carbon from the air and deposit them into the ground, which eliminates the need for commercial fertilizers. Soil with humus also holds more water and nutrients and prevents them from running off or soaking into the groundwater. This would mean less irrigation and less commercial fertilizers.

We have made progress planting cover crops and utilizing no-till farming. But there is another way.

We need to do more organic, no-till farming. This method grows crops like legumes, which capture nitrogen and carbon from the air and put it into the ground. These crops would be grown, crimped to kill the plants and rolled flat as the new crop is planted by no-till method all in one pass.

The equipment to do this has been developed by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. This method has been tested by Rodale and has shown that it can reduce the 39 percent of the nitrogen that ultimately reaches the Chesapeake Bay from agriculture.

At the same time it would restore our once fertile land to some resemblance of what was many years ago.

Bill Bartlett
St. Leonard, MD.

Ready for raw milk

Thank you for the very thorough and informative article, "Put to Pasture" (April 2008).

I'm very happy to see the rise in managed grazing in the Bay watershed. Not only is it environmentally friendly, but the milk and meat products of grass-fed animals are in demand and can command a better price than those that are conventionally produced.

As a raw milk consumer, I only buy from farmers who practice sustainable grazing, because most of the risk involved in unpasteurized milk is a result of confinement and unnatural feed. Unfortunately, in Maryland all dairy products must be pasteurized, so most farmers must sell to bulk processors.

Therefore they have one less incentive, i.e. direct sales, to practicing sustainable grazing.

A recent bill in the Maryland House of Delegates, H.B. 137, would have allowed direct farm-to-consumer sales of raw milk. While the bill failed in committee by a narrow margin, I hope it will fare better when reintroduced next year.

James Brewster
Linthicum Heights, MD