Harford farms embrace sustainable agriculture without the 'organic' label

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.
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)

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?

5 eco-friendly growers and where to find them

Grand View Farm, Forest Hill

This pasture-based farm raises chickens, cows and pigs with organic methods in as "natural an environment as possible," said Nick Bailey, co-owner. Its cows only eat grass free of fertilizers and pesticides. About 30 percent of the chickens' and pigs' diets come from bugs, roots, grass and dirt, Bailey said, and the rest is from feed free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). To keep the soil healthy, Bailey and his father, Wil, rotate the animals across the farm. The chickens share pastures with the cows, while the pigs tend to prefer the farm's wooded areas. Raising multiple species on the land minimizes bacteria and viruses that can cause disease, Bailey said. Several restaurants, include Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen, use Grand View Farm beef, chicken or pork.

What you'll get: Beef, chicken, eggs and pork. New this year: green beans, lettuce, tomatoes and squash.

Where you'll find it: Grand View Farm store, 1939 High Point Road, Forest Hill. Open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Quigley Farm, Whiteford

The 130-acre family farm falls right on the Mason-Dixon Line and produces mostly asparagus, green beans and sweet corn. Owners Todd Steiner, his wife, Amy, and Amy's parents, Bill and Donna Hanna, use cover crops throughout the year. The family pays an insect- and nutrient-management expert to scout the crops weekly, checking for an increase in insects or signs of plant disease. The expert's feedback saves crops without unnecessary pesticide spraying, Steiner said. The farm also houses about 100 chickens, which Steiner's 4-year-old daughter, Brooke, helps care for. "Farming's been in our family for years," he said. "It's the only thing we have done and have ever wanted to do."

What you'll get: Asparagus, green beans, squash, sweet corn and eggs.

Where you'll find it: Quigley Farm stand, 4712 Line Road, Whiteford. The "honor system" stand is open sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Bel Air Farmer's Market, 2 S. Bond St., Bel Air. Open Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., April through November.

Rousedale Farm, Fallston

The six-acre establishment run by Steve and Vicky Rouse produces a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the growing season. While the farm is not certified organic, it practices organic methods, said Steve Rouse. None of the farm's crops are sprayed with pesticides. The couple uses only organic compounds on the plants and soil. "If I'm going to lose a crop, I'm going to lose a crop," Rouse said. "Our mantra is, 'Well, we'll see what happens.'" Rouse uses companion planting — growing different crops in proximity, such as tomatoes next to garlic — to keep insects at bay. The farm also houses three beehives for honey production.


What you'll get: Asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, garlic, lettuce, radishes, red potatoes, turnips, strawberries, sweet onions, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, tomatoes, white potatoes and zucchini, as well as chicken, eggs and honey.

Where you’ll find it: Rousedale Farm market, 2604 Fallston Road, Fallston. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
SweetAire Farm, Darlington

This 49-acre northeastern Maryland farm sits near the Susquehanna River and Conowingo Dam. About 25 acres are used solely for fruit production, while sheep pastures occupy eight more. The rest is rolling countryside, said Art Johnson, who has owned the farm with his wife, Cathy, since 1972. While the farm is not certified organic, Johnson does use organic fertilizers. He does most of his weeding by hand and does not spray any of the farm's berries. He uses traps with orange soda to keep European fruit hornets from destroying his apples. Johnson will occasionally use organic pesticides on tree fruits and grapes. "The sprays I use are to protect rather than to cure," Johnson said. As a result of minimal spraying, SweetAire fruit may not be as shiny or polished as the grocery store versions, but Johnson said he and his wife wouldn't have it any other way. "We sell flavor, not looks," he often tells his customers.

What you'll get: Apples, apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, currants, elderberries, figs, grapes, peaches, pears, plums, quinces, raspberries, rhubarb and strawberries.

Where you'll find it: Bel Air Farmer's Market, 2 S. Bond Street in Bel Air. Open Saturdays from 7 to 11 a.m., April through November.

Woolly Hill Farm, Street

When Barbara and Keith Hoddinott bought their eight-acre farm in 1989, they planned to grow food only for themselves. But the couple, who had never before worked on a farm, quickly fell in love with the planting, tilling and harvesting that came with growing vegetables. They started planting more and selling their produce at the Bel Air Farmer's Market. "We grow a lot of varieties of a lot of different things, but we don't grow huge numbers of anything," said Barbara Hoddinott. To minimize erosion, the Hoddinotts have grass buffers in between their fields. They also use grass mulches on some crops to retain moisture and suppress weeds, she said. The Hoddinotts follow Integrated Pest Management, an approach that solves pest problems while minimizing environmental risks. The farm also houses bat and bluebird boxes to draw pests' natural predators.

What you'll get: Carrots, collard greens, garlic, kale, lettuce, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, snow peas, spring onions, squash, Swiss chard and tomatoes.

Where you'll find it: Bel Air Farmer's Market, 2 S. Bond Street in Bel Air. Open Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., April through November.  

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