Once a week, Bill Marose goes to Jim and Linda Brown's farm in Glenelg and peers at their beans, peas and pumpkins. He's looking for bugs, fungi and diseases so he can help the Browns make informed decisions about when to use pesticides, and what kind.
"We only spray when [the insects] are going to get more than we are," said Jim Brown, who pays Marose, a private contractor, for the service.
Such pest control efforts will be one topic discussed tomorrow during Howard County's Fall Agricultural Tour. The tour -- sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Howard Soil Conservation District and Howard County Farm Bureau -- provides an opportunity for farmers, county leaders and the public to learn more about innovative practices in the county.
"We want to let people know what is going on," said Cheryl Simmons, a Howard district conservationist and tour organizer. "Despite development pressures, there is still viable agriculture in Howard County."
The Browns' farm exemplifies the tour's theme, "The Changing Landscape." They and others on the tour shifted from dairy to growing vegetables a few years ago. Funding from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program enabled them to hire Marose to improve their pest management techniques.
Jim Brown explained that while organic farming is a good idea, it is costly and requires a great deal of labor. The pest management program allows his farm to use less chemical pesticide and to save money by using it more strategically, without becoming totally organic.
This summer, Marose was able to alert the Browns to a problem with spider mites that had moved into their vegetables when drought killed the grass and weeds where they hide.
"If he hadn't told us, it would have been too late," said Linda Brown. She said Marose also gave them ideas for controlling deer and for avoiding commercial fertilizer by planting hairy vetch, a legume, and mowing it under to return nutrients to the soil.
The first stop on the tour will be W. Harold Feaga's farm, west of Ellicott City, where he is using new techniques to refine the diets of the horses he owns and boards. As part of the USDA's Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, USDA staff members are analyzing manure from Feaga's farm to find out whether the additional feed is beneficial to the horses, or simply an extra expense, Simmons said.
Participants also will visit Jim and Ruthie Welling's farm outside Cooksville, where the USDA's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is helping them establish barriers of trees, shrubs and native grasses along streams on their property. These barriers control erosion and stabilize the stream banks, but they are expensive to build and require the farmers to develop alternative water sources for their animals. The program offers funding and annual payments that compensate farmers for the income lost from turning farmland into buffered areas.
The tour will drive by two other farms that are incorporating buffers in their land management; it will conclude at the Middle Patuxent Floodplain and Wetland Restoration Project. A partnership between the Conservation District, the USDA, the University of Maryland and several state agencies re-established a wet meadow that had been 30 acres of farmland and a drainage ditch. The project received Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Governor's Reward for Excellence in Environmental Nurturing for best partnership in August.
"Funding for conservation programs helps farmers at a time when it's tough to make a living on a farm," said Simmons. "People know they want open spaces, and this tour helps them see that agriculture is the best way to maintain them."
The farm tour will leave at 8: 30 a.m. tomorrow from the University of Maryland's Center for Research and Education Farm in Clarksville. Information and reservations: 410-465-3180.