TOP STORY, March 4, 2014
Future of former Navy dairy farm unclear
By BRUCE HOTCHKISS
GAMBRILLS, Md. — In just a matter of days, on Saturday, March 15, Anne Arundel County chief executive Laura Neuman was slated to begin the process which, she hopes, would return total organic production to the former Navy dairy farm here.
At the same time, she would bid farewell to Ed and Marian Fry who for 13 years, most of them under a lease arrangement, have managed the 867-acre property.
However, the changing of the guard, so to speak, at the farm was not yet finalized at press time.
Neuman has called a meeting for Friday afternoon, starting at 4 p.m. at the farm. (For updates, visit http://americanfarm.com/publications/the-delmarva-farmer.)
It was to involve the Frys and officials of the 4-H dairy leasing club which is based on the farm.
The 4-Hers, and their leaders and parents, are fearful that the club might lose its farm use and privileges with a change in management at the property. The Frys lost favor when they recently decided to relinquish their certified organic label and to introduce some conventional production in order to save the farm’s 500 acres of row crops.
The organic devotees in the community went up in arms, the owner of a natural food store next to the old dairy farm started a petition which led to a town hall meeting and eventually the stipulation of a lease which specified the use of only approved organic growing methods.
“Unfortunately,” said Ed Fry, “we cannot successfully farm the land without using some conventional methods — the application of synthetic fertilizer, for example.
“If we cannot practice what we believe is best, we cannot not stay at this property….’
As Neuman prepared to issue an RFP — request for proposal — to fill the farm tenant position, Fry acknowledged that he is considering an appeal of the organic mandate.
By way of explaining to the community his need to modify the organic approach, he pointed to his weed problem.
“It is a persistent weed bank that has grown to the point where we cannot harvest any row crops until after a killing frost. That prohibits establishment of cover crops, which promotes soil erosion and loss of sediment.
“This year the weed of choice was cocklebur, pigweed and morning glory. I can tell you it is very difficult to separate cocklebur from corn and soybeans.
“We have practiced conventional tillage, plowing, disking and extensive cultivation for our organic protocol. When there is rain like in 2013, we cannot get into the fields to cultivate and the weed bank takes off .”
Although there are no longer any dairy cows milked on the farm — the Navy sold out in 1997 — the Frys do run a horse boarding business — which is not organic, Fry noted.
The Anne Arundel County 4-H Dairy Leasing Club is housed there, and their program is not organic, either, and the Frys have a 100 head grass fed beef herd which had been organic until Jan. 1 of this year.
At present they are still grass-fed but not certified organic.
The crop land in dispute is for corn, hay, and soybeans, Fry noted, “which has traditionally been sold to organic dairy and poultry farms in Pennsylvania.
The Frys tell the tale of trying unsuccessfully to get a five- year lease but managing only a one-year agreement — “a farmer can not be a good steward with such a short lease,” Fyr said, and they have had no lease at all for the past 14 months.
The Frys flatly rejected a five-year lease with an organic mandate. “I am not going to sacrifice my principles of good stewardship of the land just to stay on the farm,” said Fry.
As to a new farmer coming aboard by May 1, he commented: “I don’t know how they can get a new tenant in place with no soil test, no NMP (nutrient management plan) and only three weeks left in the spring planting season,” he said.
Here was Ed Fry’s summary of the sentiment within the county government and the community. “
“For me,” he said, “it is a question of county government” core values. We are part of Recreation and Parks and they oversee and manage hundreds of ball fields in the county. Their program protocol is certainly not organic and the same folks creating a tempest in a teapot, saying we are going to poison them, take their children to the county ballfields for soccer, softball and lacrosse a couple times a week. They never think about exposure to commercial fertilizer or herbicides used to make the ball parks pristine.”
Fry said he is working with the University of Maryland agricultural experts to see if there are alternatives to using herbicides to control aggressive weeds on the farm.
He said he is open to ideas that will provide a “meaningful return on the investment of money and time.”
“If a solution is found,” he said, “it needs to happen soon. Spring is coming.”