Tag Archives: Virginia

What is the BMP Challenge?

The BMP Challenge™ is a program that American Farmland Trust is running in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, in other Mid-Atlantic states, in New York, California and across the Midwest as a tool to help farmers implement BMPs, or Best Management Practices to achieve conservation goals, on their farmland. For farmers with fields in corn, nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients to help it grow, and farmers apply commercial forms of nitrogen fertilizer to provide the crop with added nutrients. The amount of nitrogen applied to the field is based on the farmer’s yield goal, or how many bushels of corn the farmer expects to grow per acre—one pound of nitrogen for one bushel of corn on average. But nitrogen’s availability to the plant is tricky, affected by temperature and the moisture in the soil. To ensure that the corn gets enough a farmer may apply extra nitrogen as insurance for reaching their yield goals.

Barn and corn field in Virginia's Shenandoah ValleyWhen more nitrogen (or any other nutrient) is applied than what the plant can utilize for growth, the excess can leave the field as runoff and contaminate waterways. Farmers have no interest in wasting expensive fertilizer or sending nutrients into nearby waterways, but their harvest is their pay check for the whole year. The risk of being wrong is great. The role that the BMP Challenge plays is to allow the farmer to compare a new practice, designed to be more nitrogen efficient, to their standard practice with a guaranteed payment if they lose yield.

When a farmer agrees to participate in the BMP Challenge a crop advisor, like me, works with them to collect a detailed history on the enrolled field, outlining the history of corn grown  and how much and what types of fertilizers have been applied to the ground. This allows us to establish how much nitrogen is already present in the soil and available for use by the newly planted crop. The crop advisor then asks what the farmer’s current yield goal is, so we can determine how much total nitrogen the corn will need by the end of the growing season.

Typically, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley apply fertilizer to corn twice; once at planting and again when they “sidedress” the balance when the corn is about knee high. This way fertilizer is available to the plant at every stage during the growing season. My job as a crop advisor is to help the farmer pinpoint exactly how much sidedress nitrogen is needed by using a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test, or PSNT.

The farmer and crop advisor collect soil samples 12 inches deep to measure the amount of nitrogen available to the plant just prior to the time when the young plants need the most fertilizer. The extra depth allows a more complete and accurate picture of how much nitrogen is available and helps guard against over fertilization. (Check out this video from the University of Wisconsin Extension for a look at PSNT in action.)

For the BMP Challenge™, We take soil samples from two different parts of the field.  One is a strip through the middle of the field, or check strip, where the farmer was encouraged to sidedress the crop at whatever rate they would typically use based on their soil type and yield goal.  In the remainder of the field the farmer agreed to only apply the amount of nitrogen recommended from the PSNT result.  It is possible that the PSNT could be the same as what the farmer had already planned or it could even call for more nitrogen, but often, the PSNT indicates that the nitrogen sidedress can be reduced or even eliminated without causing a loss in yield.

At a time when commercial fertilizer can be a third of corn’s total cost of production, any savings a farmer can find will make a huge difference for their bottom line.  Using a soil test to adjust nitrogen rates to the actual need can save money and improve water quality.  But what if it’s wrong?

By using a side-by-side comparison within the same field it is possible for the farmer to prove to him or her self that the PSNT can be trusted. And by performing the test under the umbrella of the BMP Challenge™, the risk of trying this new practice is eliminated.

Next up… Half-way to Harvest – What’s the Score? -Ear Leaf Tissue Testing in the BMP fields



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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Farm and Food News 2/17/12

More Than a Dozen New Farms Protected in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Agricultural Land Preservation Board announced an additional 1,470 acres of farmland protected across 14 farms. Since the program started in 1988, state, county and local governments have invested more than $1.1 billion to safeguard 459,007 acres on 4,243 farms.

Conference to Address Community Farms and Food in Hudson Valley

On February 25, farm and food partners in Columbia County, New York, will host the first Farming Our Future conference. The meeting will engage farmers, institutions and consumers in discussion about how to boost local food, farms and communities.

Sharing Stories of Michigan Farmers

Taste the Local Difference of Northwest Michigan has recently launched a new series of photos and stories about local farmers. New stories are added each week.

Small Farm Summit Coming to New York

The New York Small Farm Summit is fast approaching on February 29. The summit seeks to increase the visibility of small farmers, encourage local collaboration among regions and prioritize emerging opportunities to enhance small farms in New York and the Northeast.

Wisconsin Job Seekers Ask “Why Ag?”

A new online service is helping to match Wisconsin residents with appropriate jobs in agriculture. WhyAg.com features a skills-to-job match, as well as links to educational and training opportunities.

Farm-to-Institution Workshops in Virginia

Two workshops—February 28 and March 27—will address the challenges and opportunities involved in offering local, healthy food at Virginia hospitals, schools, nursing homes and corporate cafeterias.

USDA Launches New Beginning Farmer Website

USDA’s National Agricultural Library, in partnership with the American Farm Bureau Federation, recently launched Start2farm.gov, an online portal that provides assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers. The website includes links to training, financing, technical assistance and other support services, as well as successful case studies about new and beginning farmers and ranchers.

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Mid-Atlantic: A Year of Progress

The Mid-Atlantic region is blessed with agricultural diversity, producing an array of food, fuel and fiber from Delaware to Virginia. The past year has been filled with both challenges and opportunities for farms and farmers. Inclement weather throughout much of growing season tested the patience of farmers across the region. State budget concerns brought discussions of conservation to the forefront, at times challenging critical efforts to protect farmland.

As we look back on another year passed, there is also much to celebrate. 2011 saw a remarkable mix of work undertaken to save the land that sustains us, including efforts across the region to protect valuable farmland resources and to safeguard clean water sources and clean up the Chesapeake Bay. We are proud of our work in the Mid-Atlantic and wanted to share a few highlights from the past year:

Farm fields and barns in MarylandHonoring a Farmland Preservation Hero

This year, we honored Robert Ambrose of Ridgeview Acres Farm with the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Local Heroes Award. The award recognizes his outstanding efforts to protect the farms, natural resources and waters of the commonwealth. Ambrose, who runs a 130-acre cut-flower farm with his wife Sally, has served as the chairman of the Westmoreland County Agricultural Land Preservation Board since 2001, which has preserved more than 10,960 acres of productive farmland.

Helping Farmers Protect Clean Water

Kevin Craun, who farms in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, is just one of many farmers working with American Farmland Trust to reduce fertilizer use and protect clean water. Craun has been working with us by experimenting with alternative soil sampling. This method guides his final fertilizer application, closely matching the crop’s need. By sampling so accurately, Craun and other farmers are reducing their fertilizer use—saving money and protecting their crop yields while helping the environment.

Expanding Our Work in the Chesapeake Bay with Corn Farmers

Through our Mid-Atlantic Clean Water Initiative to help farmers improve their conservation practices, we reached out to farmers and their crop advisors in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to test effective practices that reduce fertilizer applications while maintaining crop yields. By working with farmers in the field and at the policy level, we made progress in reducing the amount of fertilizer flowing off farm fields and into waterways.

Rallying for Farmland Protection in Maryland

At the state level in Maryland, we galvanized the support of farmland advocates to ask the Maryland General Assembly to reject proposals that would negatively impact land conservation programs. As the Maryland General Session gets underway in January, we’ll need everyone who supports Program Openspace funding that protects farm and forest land and supports parks and recreation to make their voices heard.

A Look Ahead

As the calendar page turns to 2012, we look forward to more chances to work with our partners throughout the region to protect farmland, improve water quality and ensure a viable future for farms and farmers throughout the Mid-Atlantic. We will continue to do our best to turn the many challenges we face into opportunities by doing good work for agriculture in the region. We hope you stay tuned and keep in touch.


Jim Baird About the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and en

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Catching the “Slippery Fish” on the Farm and Doing Good for Water

When it comes to balancing a farmer’s need to grow healthy crops and preserve water quality, nitrogen—an important component of fertilizer—can be quite a “slippery fish.” Many factors influence how fertilizer cycles in and out of soil, water, plants and the air. The Nutrient BMP Challenge®, a risk management tool that American Farmland Trust is implementing across the nation to encourage on-farm conservation and reduce the amount of fertilizer flowing from farm fields into our waterways, helps address some of that risky behavior. We recently visited a Virginia farmer and BMP Challenge participant who pitted his wits against a special soil test to predict how much, or how little, fertilizer his corn would actually need.

Farmers use a range of techniques to determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply to their crop; some use high-tech tools, others apply a rule of thumb. The risk protection of the BMP Challenge offers farmers peace of mind when trying something new. The program reaches out to farmers who are interested in adopting conservation practices to reduce the amount of fertilizer used and help preserve water quality but who may be nervous about the risk to their crop yield. A number of these practices provide farmers with techniques to get a better handle on that slippery fish and to use fertilizer as efficiently as possible.

“Now is the Time to Protect the Land”

A BMP Challenge visit to Craun Farm in Virginia. (L to R: Jim Baird, American Farmland Trust; Matt Heldreth, Virginia Tech; Kevin Craun, Craun Farm; Jeff Cline, Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

Our visit to Kevin Craun on his farm in the Harrisonburg area of the Shenandoah Valley helps demonstrate this process. We met him in the corn field that he enrolled in the BMP Challenge this year. Craun has been an active participant in various soil conservation practices and farmland protection for some time now. As we stood in his cornfield above the creek, he pointed out fencing he had installed along the stream to keep out his cattle.  A buffer of grass and trees varying from 50 to 100 feet in width protects the banks and can absorb nutrients that might runoff his filed in a storm. He is also participating in the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) on 40 acres of his property and has a conservation easement on additional sections of the property, which means that they can never be converted to development. He noted the assistance of American Farmland Trust when he and other community members were developing a farmland protection program for the county. “Now is the time to protect the land when the land prices are low,” remarked Craun.

Doing Good for the Water

Farm Advisor Heldreth prepares the soil sample to be combined with a solution that allows the available nitrogen level to be measured.

The purpose of our visit was to take a soil sample to determine how much nitrogen was in the field before Craun made the final application of fertilizer. This information would allow him to apply an amount closer to what the corn actually needed rather than following a fixed formula. Being more accurate in this way would not only benefit the environment, but would help his profits by not paying for more fertilizer than the crop could use. Matt Heldreth, who took the soil samples and testing along with Jeffery Cline, Nutrient Management Specialist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is a senior at Virginia Tech and a farmer himself and noted that “techniques such as the PSNT (Pre-Sidedress Nitrogen Test) help farmers match their management to the needs of their individual fields, crop selections and whole farm operation, allowing them to do well economically while they do good for the water.”

As we left, Heldreth asked Craun how much nitrogen he thought his corn would need. “Well,” said Craun, squinting thoughtfully at the knee high plants nestled in the rolling hills. “Maybe 80 pounds?” Wouldn’t you know, the PSNT test agreed! The test and his experience came up with the same estimate for the amount of fertilizer to add to his soil.

As our work with farmers across the country using the BMP Challenge increases, we hope to continue to expand on-farm conservation practices and, in turn, work to preserve water quality in more and more critical locations. Conservation has both public and private benefits, which are being generated by the farmers themselves. And now, as our Virginia farmer put it, we need to “get the story out there of what farmers are doing.”


About the Authors:

Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and ensuring that farmer concerns are reflected in policy and program discussions.

Delancey Nelson is a Marketing Intern with American Farmland Trust. She has worked on numerous farms and vineyards abroad and holds a degree in Historic Preservation and Community Planning from the College of Charleston. She is also the market manager of the Lauraville Farmers Market in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Congratulations King George Farmers Market, Winner: Boutique Category

This is one in a series of posts highlighting the four winners of our summer long America’s Favorite Farmers Markets™ contest.

King George County is the quintessential rural Virginia setting, with about 22,000 residents calling the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers home. The county prides itself on its family-oriented community feel, but without a major downtown setting, local schools often act as meeting centers. Now, thanks to the King George Farmers Market, residents have a place to gather alongside neighbors, shopping for the best local produce from the county’s many family farmers.

The market opened in May 2009 thanks to a spark from grower Elizabeth Bewick.  When it first opened, there were just three vendors. Later it grew to about a dozen producers, and during peak season, the Saturday market boasts up to 14 vendors. When establishing the market, a group of citizen-famers and food lovers decided the King George Farmers Market should only allow growers from within the county.

“When we were starting the market we looked at rules for markets in our area,” explains Market Manager DeLaura Padovan. “We had a lot of discussions on how to define local because we wanted to be a grower and producer market only. In the end, we made it only for those within the county. We decided to start small and add more if needed.”

So far, that concept works as the King George Farmers Market won in the boutique category for this year’s America’s Favorite Farmers Market. “I’m still completely overwhelmed we won this contest,” Padovan says.

Given the relatively small size of the region, the farmers market acts as a gathering center for families and friends. The county boasts tremendous community participation, from the various activities at the King George High School to the local YMCA. The market joined events like a monthly family sing-along, a community appreciation day, and a colonial reenactment led by the local 4H Club, to grow community spirit. The local quilting club also shows its support through a raffle of two quilt patterns featuring different fruits and vegetables. Even students at the King George High School helped spread the word about the American’s Favorite Farmers Market contest through Facebook. It’s easy to see that the farmers market truly represents the community-centered mentality of the residents.

“By and large, most of us don’t live in a neighborhood,” Padovan says. “This gives us the common neighborhood in the county. I think people are here because they want to live in the country.”

Many in the county yearn for self sufficiency. To reach this goal, residents rely on the small network of food growers in the area. Padovan says this network is not just for food safety concerns, but also because it ends up being much more relevant for farmers and residents. “If we can take care of ourselves in this county, we are way better off,” she says.

The county-only restriction provides family farmers with the chance to sell their goods to customers looking for healthy, locally grown options. Like most of the vendors at the market, Padovan and her husband operate a farm on less than an acre. “Just about everyone is on an acre-sized backyard garden,” she explains. “For being so tiny, we have a pretty amazing variety of things we sell.”

If you spend a Saturday at the market, which runs from May through Thanksgiving weekend, you’ll find local beef, fish, chicken and duck eggs, spring plants, herbs, and plenty of vegetables. But it’s not just the food that brings people out to the market. Padovan says one of the missions of the market is to educate through various outreach programs. In addition to classes on raising Shitake mushrooms and canning tomatoes, the market hosted a food film series in the winter and had presenters speak about regional feasibility.

Looking to the future, Padovan says, “One of our missions is to grow more growers, starting with kids in the schools.” Fear of big-box retailers moving into the area makes Padovan and others associated with the farmers market even more eager to teach children about the importance of locally grown food.

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Congratulations Falls Church Farmers Market, Winner: Medium Category

This is one in a series of posts highlighting the four winners of our summer long America’s Favorite Farmers Markets™ contest.

Last winter saw some of the most severe weather in the Washington, D.C. area. A handful of major blizzards literally brought the city and surrounding communities to a halt. Despite the impeding snow storms, the famers market in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of D.C., still drew vendors and customers. But even the popular Saturday market was not immune from the treacherous weather; for the first time in its 25-year history, the market shut down for one weekend.

The Falls Church Farmers Market has a large, faithful base of consumers, drawing about 1,000 visitors during peak season. Many have attended the market for 20 or more years, looking for the best produce, meats and goods from area vendors. It’s a place to meet up with your neighbors, chat about food and get hands-on lessons from local growers.

“I think we have a great client base that is very, very supportive of the market and love coming up to the Falls Church Market and bumping into their neighbors,” says Howard Herman, the general manager of community service for the city. “I look at the market as kind of the fabric of the city, and I think the customers also view it that way. To me, it’s a critically important aspect of the city, and something the citizens feel good about.”

In its early days, the Falls Church Farmers Market struggled with attracting both producers and customers. But it wasn’t just luck that brought prosperity to the market. Herman explains that the market was heavily advertised after its early years, a time that saw only about six producers. The market was originally seasonal, but for the past four years the market shifted to a year-long event, drawing in about 45 vendors during peak season and dropping to 30 in the winter.

Winning a top award in America’s Favorite Farmers Market was a tremendous honor, Herman says. “I love the market. It’s one of those things that is hard to articulate what it means to the city and what it means to me.”

In addition to being general manager of the market, Herman is also a vendor. He sells honey and has always had an interest in farming. He considers the market to be his baby. “I think it’s a tremendous honor,” he says about winning the award. “From my perspective, on behalf of the city, I loved getting the email and was thrilled about it.”

The market saw a shift about 10 years ago when it became more diverse. Herman says the goal of diversifying the market was to make sure vendors were not just selling peaches, apples, tomatoes and corn. Now you can find baked goods, cheese, meats like sausage, beef and poultry, and other vendors there were not originally available at the market.

“It’s a result primarily of us seeking out a more diverse product line,” Herman says. “But I also think it’s recognition that there are farmers who produce or grow things other than fruits and vegetables. There are quite a few beef, pork and lamb producers out there that we weren’t even touching at the market.

The market allows producers from within a 125 mile radius of the city of Falls Church. That means the market is filled with growers and producers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.

“The more diverse we’ve gotten, the more popular the market has been,” Herman says. “You can do one-stop shopping here. You can get everything here—produce wise—that you can get at any super market, and the fact it’s locally grown produce is a huge plus.”

These local farmers markets help keep family-owned farms in business, Herman believes. While the locally grown food movement may have seemed like a fad 25 years ago when the market first opened, today it’s clear people yearn for food grown by people they can interact with. Farmers can sell directly to the consumer and not have to go directly through a wholesaler.

“I frequently hear from farmers that the local farmers markets have allowed them to stay in business,” Herman says. “I have one (farmer) up in Pennsylvania who says his family would probably be out of the farming industry if it weren’t for the local markets.”

For consumers, the market gives them a chance to talk directly with the farmers who produce their food. You can walk right up to a vendor and ask them about their okra or heirloom tomatoes, and see if they have any recipe ideas.

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