SUDLERSVILLE, Md. — In just a few short years, Chesapeake Greenhouse has turned a hydroponic lettuce operation into a thriving business serving three colleges, a variety of farmers markets and as many as 45 different restaurants.
Chesapeake Greenhouse was one of five different stops on the recent Maryland Farm Tour. Held on Wednesday, April 9, the farm tour in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties was meant to showcase different elements of Maryland’s diverse farming community.
“Each tour, which includes a public meeting, is designed to give Marylanders an opportunity to share their opinions and discuss issues and policies affecting agriculture and rural communities, exchange ideas, meet the commission members and get better acquainted with the role of the” Maryland Agricultural Commission, said Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Buddy Hance.
The commission participates in outreach tours in the spring and fall of each year. The tours enable members to gain a better understanding of the nature and diversity of agriculture in the state, as well as give area farmers an opportunity to express their concerns to the commission.
Schmidt Farms in Sudlersville, a third-generation farm featured on the tour, includes a vineyard management company and a family of farmers deeply involved in agricultural research. Schmidt Farms is currently partnering with the University of Maryland in a cover crop study using a new machine to seed cover crops in standing corn; a GreenSeeker study with the Universities of Maryland and Delaware to learn how to maximize nitrogen use; and a groundwater study with the U.S. Geological Survey funded by the Maryland Soybean Board and the Maryland Grain Producers.
Jennie Schmidt writes a regular blog entitled “thefoodiefarmer.”
Other farms on the tour included Andelot Farm in Worton, which includes 1,800 acres of land and has deeded farm easements to the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy; Crow Vineyard in Kennedysville, which joins a vineyard, a bed and breakfast, and a grass-fed beef operation with a theme, “stay original”; The Deerfield Poultry Farm in Centerville, which produces 500,000 broilers a year and has been honored for its energy efficiency efforts; and Fair Hill Farm in Chestertown, a 400-cow dairy farm.
Several of the farms were notable for their environmental efforts whether it was growing organic crops, recycling water, saving energy or deeding farm easements to conservation groups.
“We can all work together,” said Hans Schmidt. “I think agriculture, a lot of times, is getting a raw deal.”
Hans Schmidt stressed the research efforts and the community involvement of his family, including the GreenSeeker program, which measures plant vitality when applying fertilizer; a program that can reduce fertilizer usage.
Schmidt Farms grows a variety of crops, including about 22 acres of vineyards. They also have a vineyard management company that will rent spraying equipment, plant vines or provide workers for some 100 acres of vineyards in two states.
“If all you want to do is walk through the vineyard and hold a glass of wine, we can do that,” joked Jennie Schmidt.
There are some 42,000 heads of lettuce growing in the Chesapeake Greenhouse facility, which began in 2008 in a half-acre greenhouse. Owner John Maniscalco said that there seemed to be plenty of hydroponic businesses growing tomatoes or flowers, but none growing specialty lettuce.
The family facility recycles its water, meaning it only uses an estimated 10 percent of the water used for field-grown lettuce, he said.
“My nutrient runoff plan is zero,” he said.
Chesapeake grows herbs and a variety of specialty romaine, spring mix and bibb lettuces in a tightly controlled environment that can manage everything but the sunshine. Sustainable is a buzzword that is often tossed around agricultural circles these days.
“For us, it is very efficient,” Maniscalco said.
Maniscalco noted that hydroponic farming is not a new concept.
“The hanging gardens of Babylon” used it, he said. “This has been around for 5,000 years.”