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Gambrills farmers face critics of their switch from organic practices

After spending more than two hours last week listening to critics, farmer Edwin Fry said he's open to suggestions of how he might be able to keep the former Navy Academy dairy farm in Gambrills an organic operation.

Fry, who leases the land for his Maryland Sunrise Farm, is planning to give up his organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to battle weeds, erosion and other problems on the farm.

"I'm open to ideas. I'm not trying to be hard-headed about it," Fry told a crowd of more than 100 people who gathered Tuesday night at a small Baptist church across the street from the farm.

The meeting was organized by Anne Arundel County officials after word spread that Fry — who subleases the farm from the county — was abandoning his organic certification. A petition urging the county to require him to stay organic has topped 1,800 signatures. Fry had planned a small meeting on the farm Monday but canceled it after the county scheduled Tuesday's meeting.

Concerned neighbors have flooded county officials with phone calls and emails, and the farm has been a hot topic on social media.

"I think face-to-face is a better way to talk about things than Facebook," said Fry's wife, Marian Fry, at the start of the meeting.

The land, more than 800 acres, is owned by the Navy, which used to operate a dairy farm to supply milk to Naval Academy midshipmen. After the academy dairy operation was shut down in the late 1990s, the Navy leased the property to Horizon Organic Farms and later to the Frys.

The county signed a 30-year lease in 2007 in part to thwart efforts to build an equestrian arena on the land. The county's sublease to the Frys allows them to continue raising raise beef cattle, growing feed crops, operating a small vegetable garden and running a popular fall corn maze. There is no longer a dairy operation.

The Frys say numerous challenges — lack of a long-term lease, weeds, high nutrients in the soil — mean they need to adopt some nonorganic practices to keep the farm viable.

"I did not make money last year," Edwin Fry said in response to a question from the audience.

Fry said he'd been considering giving up on organic farming for most of the property since last summer and notified the county in December. Nothing in the Navy's lease with the county or the county's lease with the Frys requires organic farming.

David Tibbetts, president of the Greater Odenton Improvement Association, said having an organic farm on the property is a bonus — but he mainly wants to make sure the land remains a working farm.

Fry said plans for this year as of now include planting most of fields with soybeans. He would use herbicides and synthetic fertilizers on the soybeans. He would not till the land, in order to minimize erosion. He also will continue raising beef cattle and expand some of their pastures, though the cattle would no longer be certified organic.

He said no changes are planned for the vegetable garden, which will remain organic, or the corn maze, which has never been organic.

Fry told the crowd he's making responsible choices in order to do what's best for the land. While he values organic practices – he has hundreds of organic acres at another farm in Kent County – he said what's best for the Gambrills property at this point is adopting some conventional practices.

To help with one of the problems, the county's chief administrative officer, Karen Cook, said the county is renegotiating its lease with the Frys. The Frys are currently operating on a month-to-month lease.

After prompting from the audience, Cook said a decision on the Frys' lease will be made within 30 days.

But the lease isn't Fry's only concern. He said that though the Navy owns the land, it will not spend money on improving the property or offering cost-share assistance to the farmers for environmental projects. He said the Navy also won't allow management of the deer population, which has swelled to more than 200.

Naval District Washington, which oversees the farm property, did not respond to requests for information from The Baltimore Sun.

Some attendees at the meeting suggested the Frys hadn't considered all the organic options for fixing their problems. Oksana Bocharova, who used to manage the farm for the Frys, said issues at the farm "can be addressed organically."

Scott Hymes, a county council candidate who works for the state Department of Natural Resources, suggested the Frys could apply for state grants that help with on-the-ground projects to reduce water pollution.

But Nick Maravell, an organic farmer from Montgomery County, said he knows the Frys and appreciates the difficulty of their situation.

"There are always solutions when you're looking at someone else's farm," he said.

The county is planning a meeting with the Frys this week to discuss the issues and suggestions raised at the meeting.

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