Whether or not farmer Ed Fry will be allowed to farm a large chunk of land in Anne Arundel County, Md., for the long term remains to be seen, but he’s getting ready for spring.
“I’m tired of meetings and tired of reading about myself. Spring’s coming and I want to be farming,” he said.
In December, Fry announced that he was giving up his organic certification on 500 acres of land he’s been renting since 2001 on a former U.S. Naval Academy dairy farm due to a “perfect storm” of issues.
But his decision has not gone over well with many of his neighbors, and the county, which subleases the land to Fry, has been considering whether to sublease the acreage to another farmer willing to farm it organically.
During a phone interview Wednesday, Fry said the county had offered a written contract to him to remain on the farm, Maryland Sunrise Farm, for at least the next nine months, while at the same time putting out a “request for proposals” for any other farmer interested in possibly keeping the farm organic.
Karen Cook, chief administrative officer for Anne Arundel County, said the county would be putting out the RFP within the next several weeks. The county leases the farm from the U.S. Naval Academy and subleases the land to Fry.
“The goal is to do what’s best for the land,” Cook said.
Even though she acknowledged the county’s relationship with the Fry family, she also said the county couldn’t ignore inquiries from farmers willing to continue farming the land organically. The RFP is being put together, she said, by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Fry said it was not an easy decision giving up his organic certification, but he feels it’s necessary given the continuous noxious weed problems on the land, excess phosphorus from the application of manure, the loss of his organic beef processor in Littlestown, Pa., and the lack of a long-term contract with the county. Fry raises 115 Angus cattle on the farm, which had been marketed organically. He also grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and 3 1/2 acres of organic vegetables, and runs a community supported agriculture venture, or CSA, which had 50 members last season.
Fry said he wants to plant non-GMO soybeans on part of the land along with a “little bit” of potash. His plan is to spray the crop twice, put in no-till practices and plant a cover crop in September in order to build the soils back up.
“I decided I was going to be a good steward or not do it at all,” he said, adding that he’s been working over the years with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to get native trees established in stream banks and some manmade wetlands on the land.
Fry also farms 1,500 acres near Chestertown, Md., half of which he farms organically. Weeds have also been a problem on the Chestertown farm, leading him to take 20 acres out of organic production, but he’s also transitioning 200 acres to organic production.
The fact that the county has offered him a contract through the end of the year, he said, will at least allow him to continue his organic vegetable garden and CSA on the farm. But a corn maze he puts on in the fall will likely not continue, especially with the lack of a long-term lease. Fry said he’s just ready to move on from the situation.
“It’s tiresome, and I approached this with the best of intentions of what was best with the farm,” he said.
Gail Yeiser, who heads the Anne Arundel County Dairy Leasing Program, which is based at Maryland Sunrise Farm, said she’s concerned about the future of the program and whether or not any future tenant would work with the county’s 4-H students to allow them to house their animals at the farm.
The program, which started around 1992, allows 4-H members from nearby Annapolis and other cities to lease heifers from area dairy farms over the summer to show at local dairy shows. The heifers then go back to their respective farms in the fall.
Yeiser said the program serves around 20 4-H members each year.
A clause in the county’s lease, she said, requires anyone that rents the land to accommodate the Anne Arundel County Dairy Leasing Program.
“The word accommodate can mean of different things to a lot of different landlords,” she said. “We built some of these relationships over the years. We built a lot of good friends. A lot of people have trusted us over the years with their animals.”
Ryan Shenk of Palmyra Farm in Hagerstown, Md., which has donated heifers to the dairy leasing program, said the program exposes many inner-city 4-H members to farming for the first time.
“The program is important just for the shear fact of educating the public. These kids are not anywhere close to a farm background,” Shenk said.
He worries about the potential precedent the county’s decision on the farm could have on other farms in areas close to urban populations.
“All the Frys want to do is change from organic to conventional, get more yield to feed more animals or people,” he said. “It’s one where it does go through, it could give the power to any landowner to tell the person that leases from them you have to plant organic or you have to plant this, this or this.”