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Picking Food that is Healthy for the Chesapeake Bay


Most consumers know the ‘buy local’ and 'organic' labels for produce. But not everyone knows that just because something is grown locally and organically does not mean it is good for the Chesapeake Bay.

After all, factory-farmed chicken from Maryland’s Eastern Shore is local, but organic manure from this industry and Pennsylvania dairy farms are major sources of water pollution.  People who want to pick food that is healthy for both the bay and their bodies should consider supporting visionary farmers who are also dedicated to clean water.  That would include farmers like Brett Grohsgal, 56, who has been running the Even’ Star Organic Farm in southern Maryland for almost 20 years.

Instead of growing vast fields of a monoculture – like corn or soybeans –  Grohsgal allows half of his 100 acres in St. Mary’s County to remain forested.  And he aggressively rotates 70 different crops -- including cucumber, sweet potatoes and flowers -- from plot to plot on much of his remaining land. To protect the health of the two streams that flow through his property, he planted rows of black locust trees and loblolly pines to act as natural water filters.

Grohsgal is part of the new "Fair Farms" movement in Maryland.  Fair Farms is an alliance of 90 farmers, environmental organizations and farmers that supports growers who are not only organic, but also using practices like forested buffers along streams, which many conventional farmers do not use.

"Forested buffers are one of the most effective means of protecting water quality from runoff," said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake and a leader of Fair Farms. “The plants in these forested buffers take up those pollutants – the nitrogen, the phosphorus – and that keeps it from getting into our waterways and causing pollution problems like harmful algae blooms."

During a recent tour of his farm at 48322 Far Cry Road in Lexington Park, which is bright with gladiolas and buzzing with bees, the former chef listed a few of the vegetables he cultivates.  "Right now, since it’s summer, we have 20 different types of tomatoes, five different kinds of cucumber, four different types of squash, okra, two types of basil, and six kinds of eggplant," Grohsgal said.  "The list goes on and on.  And many, many herbs as well."

He explained why his rotation of crops from field to field and season to season allows him to avoid spraying chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers that can run off into streams.

"You want to break the pest cycles," said Grohsgal, who earned degrees in botany and soil microbiology. "So when you change from one crop – let’s say, radish – to another –like clover -- typically the same insect pests or pathogens don’t hit both. What’s a good example?  Nematodes (round worms).  Certain types of bad nematodes love white turnips.  They don’t get along particularly well with clover.  So that clover breaks the cycle.  But a second, more important reason I’m addicted to clover – and why we spend so much money on clover seed – is because clover adds nitrogen."

Nitrogen, of course, is a fertilizer -- the rocket fuel for both crops (on land) and algae blooms (in the water). Clovers are Grohsgal's tiny green factories for manufacturing the stuff.  The planting of clover between vegetable crops as part of a multi-crop rotation is a technique that farmers have known about for centuries. But since the 1950s, many American farmers have moved in a different direction, toward chemical, highly mechanized, monoculture farming, often of corn and soybeans.

Clover is good to add to the mix, because it sucks nitrogen gas out of the atmosphere and stuffs it down into nodules in its roots. At the end of the season, Grohsgal plows the clover into the soil, allowing its stash of nitrogen to feed the next crop. So he doesn’t have to spray any chemical nitrogen fertilizer, which could run off and pollute streams.

Because Grohsgal doesn’t use chemical herbicides, his farm creates more jobs than a conventional farm would. He employs 10 local folks who pick weeds (instead of poisoning them with chemicals) and plant sprouts. 

Grohsgal said he has no illusion that small, organic farms like his could ever completely replace industrial farming as the main source of food production in the U.S., because of organic farming’s demands for physical labor.   "No. And the reason is that, we as a nation, do not have enough people willing to work in 95 decree heat and weed on their knees," Grohsgal said. "Chemical farming, as a rule, is much less labor intensive.  On the other hand, the farmers who use chemicals heavily often have to cope with huge amounts of chemical overloads in their own systems. So many a conventional farmer suffers from diseases late in life."

Grohsgal said he earns a profit from his farm – although not a rich one. The farm grosses about $300,000 per year, but he must use that to support 10 employees, whom he pays $9 to $11 per hour. Grohsgal said that leaves a net income for him of only about $8 an hour in good years (although he works very long hours).

His real wealth is measured in the health of his land and in richness of his food, which he sells to about 500 subscribing families in a local distribution system called a “Community Sponsored Agriculture” or CSA network. He also distributes his produce, eggs, flowers and herbs to a farmer’s market in Washington, D.C., three independent groceries, and eight restaurants.

"I just love the CSA model," Grohsgal said. "It takes a lot more care than just selling to chefs.  But I really like feeding a lot of families really healthy food."

So if you want to buy green, don’t just buy local. Look up farmers like Brett Grohsgal, who are fair to the bay and the planet.

For information on the Fair Farms coalition, visit:  http://fairfarmsnow.org
For information on Grohsgal's Even’ Star Organic Farm, visit: http://www.localharvest.org/even-star-organic-farm-M9994

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.