Thursday, March 03, 2005

Time to Diversify

In farming, as in so many other endeavors, restricting one's source of financial sustenance to one or two products is a dangerous risk. After all, didn't the warning against "putting all one's eggs in one basket" originate on some bucolic homestead somewhere? Many farmers in Maryland basically monocrop, that is, plant all their fields with one or perhaps two different crops, often soybeans or corn, primarily for chicken feed. According to an article in yesterday's Sun, over 150,000 bushels of soy beans are produced in Anne Arundel County per year.

Soybean crops and the livelihood of these farmers are now threatened by a contagious fungal disease called soybean rust, which is encroaching all the way from Louisiana, where it was discovered about a year ago. The fungus can travel via wind over 1,000 miles per year and has caused yield losses of up to 80 percent in some afflicted areas of the world.

The growing vulnerability of soybeans presents a good opportunity to reflect on the way we farm, and the nature of farming in Anne Arundel County. First, one doesn't need a degree in agronomics to realize that land in the County is too valuable to sustain growing chicken feed for very long. There is far cheaper acreage on the Eastern Shore, and certainly in the midwest, on which to grow corn and soy. If our farmland isn't economically sustainable, the only crop it's going to produce is row after row of McMansions.

Local farmers (and ideally, all farmers) need to diversify their crops, both for their own economic security and for the health of the environment. A monocrop is an ideal breeding ground for pests and disease. I also feel strongly that local farmers should begin to seriously consider using organic methods to grow their crops, it's better for the Bay, and organic produce and grains command a healthy premium at market. Locally, in the DC metro area and around Annapolis, there seems to be a growing awareness among consumers of the advantages of going organic, and local farmers could tap into that with the proper marketing and outreach. Finally, each of us that wants to see farming thrive in Anne Arundel must go out of our way to support local farmers, at markets, grocery stores, and roadside stands.

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