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Ag economists catch glimpse of diverse farms in southern Maryland

Chip Bowling holds up his farm’s nutrient management plan binder as he explains what it’s like to farm in the Chesapeake Bay watershed
MAN WITH A PLAN: Chip Bowling holds up his farm’s nutrient management plan binder as he explains what it’s like to farm in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Chip Bowling's Bunker Hill Farm in Charles County was a stop on the tour.

Members of the International Agriculture and Applied Economics Association come from land-grant universities all over the country, and as far away as Australia, Japan and Colombia. 

Stan Ernst, agribusiness management instructor at Penn State, recently brought the group together to tour Southern Maryland farms because, "it offers a unique perspective of both what was and what is, in regards to Maryland agriculture south of the I-95 corridor. This is the region most associated with the old tobacco economy," Ernst says. "It’s home to history, horses and the region’s ongoing struggle to balance farm productivity with water quality concerns of the Chesapeake Bay and its feeder rivers. Its growing role as a bedroom community for the greater Washington, D.C., area also brings additional challenges, as well as market opportunities."

AG TOUR: The tour was put on by the International Agriculture and Applied Economics Association.

The tour began with a visit to Shlagel Farms in Charles County, with the group riding in from Washington on a chartered bus. Farm owner Russell Shlagel spoke to the group about his farm, which has been in his family for over 100 years and has been recognized by the state as a Century Farm.

The Shlagels have also been recognized for their conservation efforts, being named the 2017 Soil Conservation Farm of the Year for Charles County.

Their current business model focuses on fruit and vegetable production, and the farm sells to chain grocery stores, wholesalers, and to nine weekly farmers markets in the Washington/Baltimore region. They also have on-farm sales and an agritourism component where they host the general public and school tours in the fall.

The group then ventured deeper into Charles County as they went to Bunker Hill Farm, owned and farmed by Chip Bowling and his family. Bowling was the first two-term president of the National Corn Growers Association.

Bunker Hill Farm was originally in tobacco production, but after they took a tobacco buyout, they transitioned into grain farming and currently manage over 1,000 acres through 100 agricultural leases.

The home farm is located along the Wicomico River, which drains into the Potomac River, a large tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Consequently, water quality and conservation best management practices are a large part of what the Bowlings do on their farm.

SHELL GAME: The oyster operation at Hollywood Oyster Co. was a stop on the tour.

While speaking to the group, Bowling held up a heavy white binder and displayed the paperwork required by farmers through their nutrient management plan they have on file.

"Farming in the Chesapeake Bay watershed means taking the best care of the land and the water that we can. Our nutrient management plans and our conservation efforts help us do that," he says.

Bowling is in demand as a speaker on the challenges of crop farming, commercial grain farming, and domestic and foreign grain marketing in Maryland and Virginia.

The last stop was the Hollywood Oyster Co., a 300-acre aquaculture operation next to the Patuxent River. Owner and aquaculture farmer Tal Petty starts oyster seeds, known as spat, on the dock. He then moves the young oysters to his water column leases that are spread throughout the Patuxent River and in an adjacent creek.

The operation is unique in that it is entirely run on solar power, including the chilling, packing and storage facilities. Hollywood Oyster Co. sells to chefs, restaurants, distributors and direct to customers. They’re also known for their creatively named oysters, called Hollywood, Sweet Jesus, VaVoom and Seasider.

Petty says that he takes conservation seriously, and that the farm’s mission "is to sustainably farm the highest-quality oysters for discerning customers, and to leave the environment a better place by being a sustainable food producer."

Oysters are known for their ability to filter water. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, adult oysters can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day, each.

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