Brad's Produce at the Bel Air Farmer's Market

Customers of Brad's Produce of Churchville, Md., purchase asparagus and strawberries during the Bel Air Farmer's Market. Brad's Produce is one of several Harford County farms practicing sustainable agriculture. (Patrick Smith, The Baltimore Sun / May 24, 2014)

Gone are the days when factory-produced food went unquestioned. In the age of GMOs and climate change theories, a growing number of consumers are demanding to know how their food gets from the ground to their dinner plates, and local farmers are ready with answers.

Whether they are reducing pesticide use, raising animals in pastures instead of confinement or rotating crops to keep the soil healthy, an increasing number of Harford County farmers are taking steps to protect the environment while running a healthy, thriving farm.

The steps are part of the sustainable agriculture movement — agriculture that is profitable, protects natural resources and maintains or increases the quality of life in rural communities. 

“Sustainable farming tries to incorporate organic and conventional [practices] and have a happy medium between the two,” said Brad Milton, owner of Brad’s Produce, a 250-acre farm in Churchville. 

Sustainable agriculture strategies vary by farm, said Andy Clark, communications director for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the University of Maryland College Park.

“There’s a spectrum of sustainability,” he said. “On one end, there’s organic.”

Organic farms receive certification from a U.S. Department of Agriculture-accredited organization. The certification means foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines for soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest and weed control and use of additives. Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited on certified organic farms.

While many consumers request organic food, becoming a certified organic farm can be more limiting, time-consuming and costly than it’s worth for small farms, several farmers said. For example, any land used to produce organic crops cannot have prohibited substances applied to it for three years, and certification costs can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

“Our nation would starve if it had to be fed organically,” Milton said.

On the other end of the sustainability spectrum are several sustainable methods, including cover crops — crops planted in vacant space and then worked into the soil after they’ve grown, Clark said.

“Anytime you can keep something growing in the soil, the better it is for the soil,” said Todd Steiner, co-owner of Quigley Farm in Whiteford.

Steiner plants Tillage Radishes every year to keep his soil healthy and ready for future crops. Milton also plants cover crops like clover, which pulls nitrogen, a primary soil nutrient, from the air, recycles it and stores it in its roots, Milton said. When flowering is complete, the clover releases nitrogen back into the soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

Other sustainable methods include physically removing weeds and insects, planting “trap crops” to attract insects away from other crops and raising animals in pastures, allowing them to graze and distribute manure as they move from field to field.

For consumers, the best way to find out how their food is grown is to meet their local farmer at a farmer’s market or onsite stand, Milton said.

“Put a face behind the food,” he said.

Many, like Grand View Farm in Forest Hill, welcome visitors.

“Customers can walk around, see the animals and reconnect with where their food comes from,” said Nick Bailey, co-owner.

Milton recommends asking farmers the following questions:

  • What are your production practices?
  • Do you use cover crops?
  • Do you use pesticides? If so, how? And how often?
  • What kind of crop rotation do you use?