Lori Sallet and Sarah Lyle were just picking the final ripe cucumbers of the day when the Spy drove up the Boxer’s Rest lane on a recent summer morning. We retired to the barn to escape the mid-morning heat and discuss the hows and whys of small-scale organic farming on the Eastern Shore.
Sallet and her husband bought the land in 2007 and immediately put it in a conservation easement with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. Their goal was to preserve the 85 acres; (the Queen Anne county property was originally plotted for 30 to 40 houses), they had no original plans to become farmers. Enter Sarah Lyle, long-time friend of the Sallets and whose mother had a large organic garden; she and the Sallets were passionate believers in nutrition, eating organically, and knowing where their food is grown. Lori Sallet had worked in marketing and advertising for 20 some years. They went to organic conferences, read books, and scoured the internet. They built a barn, added hoop houses and an irrigation well. Sallet said Luke Howard of Homestead Farms in Millington, also an organic farmer, was of invaluable assistance.
Organic certification takes three years. Five of the eighty-five acres were planted in hay, and then mowed for two and one-half years. The combination of weed suppression and nitrogen fixing properties rests and rebuilds the soil. The independent but USDA authorized certifier, Quality Certification Services, has a mandate to inspect them and regulate. At least once a year they go through the farm records; Sallet and Lyle spend numerous hours logging information in a number of binders: seeds and supplies purchased; what was planted and when; how and when land was cultivated; when and what was harvested; and sales. “For instance,” Lyle said, “today we will document the total cucumber bushels picked; that we tilled rows in the hoophouse, and that we sold x dollars of produce.” Sallet agreed that the paper work alone is hugely time consuming. In lieu of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers they rotate crops, plant cover crops, such as forage radishes, winter rye and spring oats, for fertility and weed surpressance, use compost (even that is regulated). There are three high tunnels, one heated and two passive.
They began cultivating 4 acres in 2011, and officially started selling at the Chestertown Farmers’ Market in April of this year. Two and a half persons (there is another part-time employee) plant, cultivate and harvest the spinach, arugula, lettuce, beets, swiss chard, onions, tomatoes, cantaloupe, garlic, watermelon, potatoes, winter squash, herbs, kale, broccoli and whatever else Lyle has on offer (depending on the season) at the market. Sallet noted they are selling, “everything that comes off the field.” In addition to the farmers’ market, their produce is available at Chestertown Natural Foods and a food hub in Annapolis called the Maryland Table. She said that they put in a lot of garlic, hoping for a big wholesale crop, and added that, “the challenge is to figure out what your soil and micro-climate can grow well, and what you like to grow. ” Then there is pricing, and cost effectiveness. Tomatoes and potatoes are two of their most valuable crops; they give a very good yield, and are less labor intensive. Potatoes can be harvested as needed; tomatoes, of course, need to be picked when ripe.
Sallet figures that from an operational basis, they should be profitable in three years; the demand for certified organic produce has grown significantly in the last five or ten years and created a market opportunity. She said that it may be hard work, but that it is incredibly rewarding. She and Lyle both reiterated that they love what they’re doing. Lyle laughed, saying that some days she has to force herself to leave the farm and go home. And lest you think they get to laze around during the winter, the two will take a week or two off in December; the rest of the time is spent planning and purchasing seeds and supplies for the upcoming growing season.
The Spy had one final question, which Lori answered via email, “Boxer’s Rest refers to the fictional hard-working horse in the novel Animal Farm, written by George Orwell.”