Archive for April, 2011

Our Farm Was a Steamboat Stop!

We found a very neat historical account that mentions our farm!  Frederick McCoy wrote about his childhood memories aboard the steamboat lines that went from Washington, DC then down the Potomac River and up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore in the 1930s.  His account was featured in The Chesapeake and is online here.   

Susquehanna steamboat

His article mentions Cobrum’s Wharf (where we live) and confirms our farm grew a lot of tobacco.  His memories of every little stop along the way remind us of how thrilling life’s simple pleasures can be.   The memories of the food alone sound so wonderful: 

“In the diner room were long tables with white cloths and silver. The meal was served family style. Bowls of new potatoes, lima beans, and sliced tomatoes, ears of sweet corn and platters of fried chicken were in front of us.  The food was fresh, directly from the farm and it was cooked to perfection.


We crossed the mouth of the Wicomico River to St. Mary’s County and put in at the Chaptico Wharf. It was time for breakfast and again we dined well.  There were pitchers of milk with pieces of ice floating in them. There as hot oatmeal and cream of wheat. There were fried and scrambled eggs, fried country ham and country fried potatoes and biscuits. We all ate heartily.  At Bushwood Wharf, we were in a good seafood area. The cook went out on the pier to see what several boys had caught that morning. He bought some strings of Norfolk Spot fish and some soft crabs. […] The children of the farms would bring vegetables from their gardens. The cook would look them over on the wharfs and only purchase the freshest and best. We would be eating the bounty of the tidewater from both the land and the sea at our next meal; all caught or picked that very morning.”

Wow, if only we could all dine that well when we travel today!  At the Cobrum’s Wharf stop, the steamboat offloaded cases of canning jars (for tomato canning or moonshine?) and brought on board some hogsheads of tobacco:

“We crossed to St. Clements, stopped at Coburn’s Wharf and off-loaded more jars and took on some hogsheads of tobacco. These hogsheads averaged  about 750 pounds but could be easily rolled up the gangplank. The cask was made of native wood; several wires were wrapped around the outside and holding the head in, was a large wild grapevine nailed through the top of the sides. This held the pressed tobacco securely in the cask.”

tobacco hogshead

A hogshead was a standard container that was usually homemade for shipping dried and pressed tobacco.  These hogsheads probably made it up to Baltimore, and then who knows where they went from there?   

Tobacco farming can be hard on the land because the whole tobacco plant is usually taken off the soil.  At least with corn and soybeans, plant material like leaves and stalks usually get left on the field and eventually get incorporated back into the soil.  This returns some nutrients to the soil and helps make organic matter.  With tobacco, the leaves are the cash crop.  They’re taken to barns and dried over the winter and sold off the farm.  Out of curiosity, we’d love to know how long our land has been farmed.  It could go way back – our farm is close to the water, St. Clement’s Bay specifically, and St. Clement’s island is about 3 miles away.  St. Clement’s island is “Maryland’s first landing,” where Europeans landed in the 1630s.  We’d love to find more info that will give clues to our soil’s history, so we’ll keep looking. 

Take a moment to read Frederick McCoy’s heartwarming article about his steamboat memories.  I don’t think anyone needed a Disney World back then!

Part of Health Home Economist’s Monday Mania.

Lessons Learned With Sulfur Fertilizer

One of the best farming books I've read so far.

In this earlier post, I described how we fertilized our pastures with Elemental Ag Sulfur (90% S) last fall at the rate of 50 pounds per acre. Since then I’ve been reading Gary Zimmer’s new book, Advancing Biological Farming (HIGHLY recommended), and I wish I would have fertilized a little differently.

First off, I applied Ag Sulfur because we had too much magnesium on the soil’s exchange sites (over 20%), and we needed sulfur. Sulfur has the ability to attach to magnesium and make magnesium sulfate which either gets taken up by plants or gets leached down and out of the root zone with rainfall. Either way, it gets knocked off the exchange site and frees up room for other elements to attach to the sites. This brings the soil into better, healthier balance for soil life and plants.

In Zimmer’s book, I learned that applying Calcium would have been a better bet. The right calcium fertilizer for our pH would have competed with magnesium for exchange sites in the soil. Calcium and magnesium are like bitter rivals. Always in competition, more calcium will force magnesium to give up exchange sites, and more magnesium kicks out calcium. The reason why applying calcium would’ve been better than Elemental Sulfur is because it takes a healthy soil life (microbes) to work on Elemental Sulfur and convert it into sulfate form so it can get to work on magnesium. Our soil is still coming back to life, and I’m not sure if we have the microbe population that would quickly convert pure sulfur into a usable sulfate form. So, I wish I would’ve used a sulfate fertilizer – calcium sulfate (gypsum), ammonium sulfate, copper sulfate, zinc sulfate, etc. The sulfate would have been usable from the get-go compared to Elemental Sulfur.   Sure, there’s more sulfur in 50 pounds of Elemental Sulfur compared to gypsum, but we need sulfur now, and how long will it take the soil life to break down the Elemental Sulfur?

Also, I learned that Elemental Sulfur is a little harsh on soil life compared to sulfate fertilizers. I’m glad I was conservative and applied it at such a low rate. Zimmer said in his book that he adds sulfur every single year (via a sulfate fertilizer) because sulfur doesn’t stay in the soil. It makes sense – sulfur is an anion (negatively charged element), and it doesn’t attach to exchange sites because they are negatively charged too. Sulfur leaches out of the root zone easily, so it needs to be added regularly.

We want more sulfur because it’s integral in helping plants make protein, which is essential for great pasture quality and good animal health.  We want our sulfur levels to be at least 20 parts per million (ppm), and right now we have around 12 ppm.  We have a lot of missing sulfur, but at least we now know the best way to add it.


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