Field Guide: Farmville

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Mystery Tour is one of my favorite classes to teach at Echo Hill Outdoor School.  This class, which is open-ended by design, usually involves exploring some aspect of life in Kent County.

Last week I took a group of eighth graders from Severn Middle School to two local farms.  It is one of the privileges of living in Kent County that we can not only choose what type of food we consume by buying local produce and meat, but we can also visit the places it comes from and meet the people who produce it. Our first stop was Crow Farm in Kennedyville.  There we met Judy Crow, who lives on this third generation farm, and her son Brandon Hoy.

Brandon explains how to coax the grapevine to grow vertically.

The vineyard on the farm was just planted this spring.  It takes about three years for grape vines to produce a harvestable product.  At this stage Brandon, who is the vineyard manager, is still coaxing the vines to grow vertically.  They have to be taught to climb the wires suspended above them rather than spread over the ground.  I found it amusing that these students, who are far too young to drink wine, could now offer informed opinions on why Vidal Blanc grapes are a good choice for Kent County’s climate.

Once his grapes are ready to be harvested, Brandon plans to sell them to a local winery.  His ultimate goal is to eventually have a winery operating on the farm.

Next Brandon took us to one of the pastures where his cattle graze.  It was appropriate that we met the grass before we met the cattle since it’s the grass that sets Crow Farm’s Black Angus cattle apart from the livestock on the majority of the farms across this country.  Crow Farm’s meadows are sectioned into acres and the herd has access to just one acre at a time.  This ensures that the cattle graze thoroughly, rather than eating just the types of grass that they prefer. As they graze, the cattle leave waste deposits on the field.  Once they move on to other sections, these deposits have time to break down and fertilize the soil.  Ideally, by the time they’ve eaten the grass on the last acre, the first acre has grown back and is once again ready to be grazed upon.

Cattle, like all ruminants, evolved to eat grasses.  However, corn-fed cattle gain weight faster and do not require roaming space, which makes it a cheaper way to bring the meat to market.  Brandon explained to our group that the difference between his cattle and those raised on a diet of corn is like comparing a person who eats well-balanced meals to someone who becomes obese from eating nothing but fast food.

Bob Payne greeting Severn students

The Crow Farm’s cattle are processed at a facility in Dover, DE, and the butchered meat, which is individually packaged and frozen is then returned to the farm.  In addition to supplying some local restaurants, Brandon and Judy also sell their beef to individuals who come to their farm.

Our next stop was Bob Payne’s dairy farm in Betterton.  Bob’s been milking cows on this farm for over 60 years.  He’s welcomed students from Echo Hill Outdoor School to his property for over 35 of those years.  He realizes that agriculture is a foreign concept to many people these days, and one of the things he stresses to young visitors is that you don’t get days off.

“Three hundred sixty-five days a year, twice a day, somebody’s got to do it,” he’s fond of saying.  I watch as the children contemplate the meaning of this.  Birthdays, Christmas, weekends, days when you’ve got a headache… to a farmer those are all workdays.  He explains how to mild a cow. “All you have to do to milk a cow is put your thumb right tight on that tip and then squeeze.  That milk coming out of there is about 101.5 degrees.  That’s the normal body temperature of a cow.”

I’ve heard Bob say these words so many times over the years I’ve got them memorized and have actually done a little milking.  But as each child stoops down next to the massive, shifting, breathing cows, it is often the first and last time they will ever experience such a thing.  Some students giggle or squeal, but most are left in quiet awe at actually seeing where milk comes from. The milk from Bob Payne’s farm is part of a dairy cooperative which sells to Giant stores in the Baltimore area.

I try to stress to the children that Bob Payne’s dairy farm and the Crow Farm are unique places.  There aren’t millions of replicas scattered across the country stocking our grocery stores.  But they aren’t ready to understand this point.  For many of them, these are the only farms they’ve ever visited.  Until they grow older and learn differently, they will think of every farm as a place inhabited by a farmer who will take time out of his/her workday to tour visitors.  They will think all cows spend their days roaming through meadows of lush grasses.  Corporate agriculture is not yet even a concept to these students.

I notice a group of my students in one of Bob Payne’s fields letting a calf suckle on their fingers.  They’re laughing hysterically.

I’m jealous.

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