While the media coverage of the devastating 2012 drought has been concentrated on the Midwest, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed has also suffered. The entire watershed area from Delaware to West Virginia to Virginia to Pennsylvania and Maryland have all suffered. The area hit the hardest has been the Delmarva Peninsula.
The key word for understanding how the drought affected the region is “mixed.” Or as one farmer said to me, “Sometimes it just mattered which side of the road your farm was on.”
There are important differences between growing large commodity crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans in the Midwest and growing diverse crops on smaller acreage in the Chesapeake Region. These differences explain why the impact of the drought has not been so drastic in our region. There is a certain resiliency built into small scale farms that sell at farmers market. Or, to put it another way, when you are growing 30 plus crops, there is a strong likelihood not all of them will fail. Some crops will succeed. This is what our farmer banks on.
Other practices differ too including the scale of the farms and the use of irrigation. Most market farmers grow on acres rather then thousands of acres, so a single crop failure is limited. They also employ drip irrigation, so crops can survive through the heat and drought, even if the quality and yield are lower and the production costs are higher. The net result is that while these farmers may not experience major failures of their crops, the drought still has taken a huge toll on them in three ways: the labor and energy costs that result from constantly pumping their wells and ponds for irrigation; the lower yields and less revenue; and the backbreaking work of keeping their animals and crops fed, healthy and productive.
I will be doing a two-part series on the drought and the impact it has on those who have suffered the most in the Chesapeake Region – the farms and farmers of the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Bob Miller and his family own and operate Nice Farm Creamery, a 250-acre dairy farm in Caroline County, near Federalsburg on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. When asked what it has been like to run a grass-based diary through the 2012 drought Bob said, “This summer was like January.” With relentless temperature over 95 degrees for 8 to 10 weeks and no measureable rain since May, he certainly did not mean it was cool. He was referring to having to buy hay for the cows to eat because his pastures were burning up. Grass-based dairies typically buy some hay in the wintertime to supplement the herds grazing, but buying hay this summer has broken the Miller’s budget and will force tough choices when the family needs to buy grass seed and winter hay. “That’s money my family can’t recapture,” said Bob.
Grass dairy farming has lots of efficiencies but this extreme drought on the Delmarva Peninsula has trumped them all. While the Nice Farm Creamery herd of cows is made up of a multitude of breeds well-adapted to grazing and Bob’s pasture includes a wide variety of grasses grown specifically for different types of weather, including millet to sudax grasses that are well adapted to dry heat, to clover and fescue for cooler weather, it has still been a difficult summer. While his pastures stayed greener longer than those of his neighbors due to his careful management in the end Mother Nature wrecked havoc on the farm. “It’s really been tough,” said Bob.
Nice Farms is a family operation with Bob’s parents, Bob and Chase, his siblings Lucas (18) and young Chase (14) handling the dairy operations. Bob and his wife Jacqueline operate the on-farm creamery.
Bob sells his bottled milk and yogurt at the Annapolis FRESHFARM Market and at other farmers markets in the area. “Customers really notice how different the milk tastes. They are willing to pay a small premium for that and to know where it comes from.” The Millers plan to add cream, churned butter and low fat milk to their market offerings later this year.
Choosing to be a dairy farmer is what Bob calls following “the road less traveled,” a favorite line from one of America’s beloved poets, Robert Frost. The summer of 2012 has really tested that road.
~ Ann Yonkers, Co-Executive Director and Co-Founder of FRESHFARM Markets