In my farming career I have given countless tours. How many countless? Let’s say many countless and they all are usually the same!
50 or so people come, mostly members and familiar faces and its easy and fun.
This time, not so much! With a call on Thursday from a county person letting me know the County Executive was to be in attendance, I was, to put it mildly, totally freaking out.
With over 100 people in attendance, and almost zero familiar faces I started like I always do: brief intro to the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve.
The Agricultural Reserve is a model of the nation by keeping farmland farmland even as we are close to a major metropolitan area. It was started in the 1980’s as a way to protect the county from being just houses. It set aside 93,000 acres, or just about 1/3 of the county. Want to see it from above? Just go on google maps and look at our farm. Just to the west of the Potomac river is Leesburg and a sea of houses. To the east is part of the Ag Reserve, to see the distinction is truly remarkable.
With eyes appearing to glaze over from my "nerding out" of the reserve, I did some brief intros to my family, and the farm team and we were on our way.
As you may or may not know, we are lucky to be farming in an area that my wife and I were both born and raised. It is a point of pride that I can say I started a farm and am raising a family where I grew up. But it was also important to point out I wasn’t able to do this by myself. My wife was blessed with an inheritance from her grandfather which helped us put the hefty down payment to afford this land. I mention this because one challenge of growing new farmers in this region is the exorbitant cost of land. I am always clear it wasn’t due to my amazing abilities that we were able to buy farmland, I was just lucky.
We made our first stop at the field and gave an intro to the different crops growing. The usual first topic is the term “organic” so I stopped and gave my memorized speech on organic vs conventional farming.
I asked anyone that had watched a Netflix documentary about food to try as hard as they could to forget what they learned and just here me out. Although I haven’t watched all of them, as someone who has farmed for over 15 years, I know the angle and it is great for entertainment but not always the most accurate.
So what is organic you say? Here is my answer in the most basic and easily digestible way that is really all you need to know:
Organic farmers feed the soil.
Conventional farmers feed the plant.
That’s it! You can go down any number of rabbit holes to challenge my assessment, you can read any number of books, but that is the basic idea, I promise.
We continued on, discussing irrigation, how we use drip tape to conserve water and water the plants, not weeds. We also looked at our biodegradable plastic that helps with weed pressures.
Towards the end of our tour, we were asked by a young tour-goer how we got into farming.
Charlotte answered first and said something witty and inspiring.
My response was more convoluted and meandering.
I fell in love with farming because it requires knowledge of everything. Any one area we deal with as farmers could be its own vocation. Weather, soil, plants, mechanics, plumbing, electricity, the list is literally endless.
Am I a master at any one topic? Hell no! But its fascinating that I get to deal with all of them on any given day.
Which led me to my last part of the tour and the conclusion of this long post…
Every winter I go to a farming conference hosted by Future Harvest, a organization that educates and promotes small scale farming in our region. I have been going to this conference for over 15 years and it is a highlight of my year. In the beginning I always felt so confidant and excited to learn and grow. But as the years went on, I was starting to feel overwhelmed and inadequate.
During one such conference a few years back, we were having lunch with a bunch of conference-goers and a farmer friend of mine said I looked like hell!
I explained that I feel like I don’t know how to farm anymore and that I was totally overwhelmed.
She looked me straight in the eye and told me this amazing story that I will share with you. She said…
When her daughter started her freshman year at UMD, the dean gave a speech to the whole class. He said I want you to leave this University after graduation thinking you know less than you do now!
My mind was blown. It is a simple enough concept, but one I never considered. As my world gets bigger, I will understand less of it. Its that simple and has allowed me to grow and prosper as a farmer and human ever since.