It is the right thing to do...
At Rock Hill Orchard, we practice sustainability in order to protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare. We know that it is the right thing to do and it is actually more profitable to do so!
Integrated Pest Management
At Rock Hill Orchard, we follow an approach called Integrated pest management (IPM) to pest control that provides a variety of tactics to prevent, avoid or suppress weeds, insects and crop diseases, while protecting human health, the environment and the profitability of agriculture. IPM practices include scouting, pest trapping, pest resistant plant varieties, sanitation, cultural control methods (i.e. Keeping the orchard mowed to cut down on additional habitat for pests), physical and mechanical controls, biological controls, precise timing and application of any needed pesticides.
We have an IPM scout (consultant) who visits our farm each week. With IPM, a decision to use pesticides is made when the population of that pest reaches numbers that would be detrimental to the quality of that crop and no other alternative management practices are available that would provide effective control. When pesticides are needed, we follow the recommendations made by the University of Maryland Extension and adhere to all label requirements and restrictions. The goals of IPM are to achieve the effective management of pests in the safest manners. Throughout our orchard, you will see traps hanging from the trees or mounted on stands next to the trees. These traps are used to help determine the number of active insects in the orchard.
Fire blight is a bacterial disease of apple trees that can kill blossoms, new green shoots, branches, and sometimes entire trees. There is a temperature and humidity model that predicts when there will be a fire blight infection called Maryblyt that we use to tell us when to spray. These infections only happen during blossom periods. In addition, since the sprays that are used can only be used up to four times per year, it is very important to closely watch the model.
Over the last few years, brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) has become a major problem both in the apples and the peaches. It has been found that there are two major periods when BMSB comes into the orchard, so by a combination of trapping and perimeter spraying, we are able to limit sprays for BMSB except for when it is really important.
Sustainability in the Orchard
We use a natural product called Surround on our apples and peaches. This is a natural product made of kaolin clay which creates a barrier film that acts as a broad spectrum crop protection. It works to control insect pests and disease while protecting against sunburn and heat stress. The kaolin clay coats the plants with a white powder film that acts in several ways to deter pests. It creates a hostile environment for insects and mites, the particles adhere to the insects acting as a strong irritant and the film creates a physical barrier to insects like psylla.
We also are using mating disrupters in our peach trees. By tying something that looks like a twist tie on every one of our peach trees each year, we are able to control oriental fruit moth without the need for any sprays.
We irrigate all of the fruit trees that have been planted since 2010. These are irrigated via hoses which have drip emitters at the base of each tree. These emitters allow us to regulate the amount of water going out and ensures that each tree gets the same amount even if the water line goes up a hill. In addition, if the water is at the base of the tree, the tree gets all the water and not any grass or weeds.
Sustainability in Vegetable Production
Our vegetable production uses many forms of sustainable production. Like the orchard, we leverage IPM throughout.
We plant many of our vegetables on raised beds covered in black plastic. This warms up the soil and minimizes the weed competition directly under the vegetables themselves which means the vegetables are getting the water and the nutrients, not the weeds. We use “T-tape” under the plastic which is a form of permeable drip hose which spreads water out about 12” along the length of the hose.
Some vegetables like tomatoes grow best when covered so they don’t get any water on the leaves or fruit. We grow many of the heirloom tomatoes in our high tunnels so that our fruit is higher quality with fewer disease pressures.
Rock Hill is named rock hill for a reason in that we have a lot of rock under our soil. We practice composting on a large scale to improve the soil on our farm. We mix vegetable matter from our farm with wood chips to create black gold which then gets spread back onto the fields. Over the last few years, we have taken one field at a time and made large piles of compost which slowly turns back to soil. Then after about two years, we spread it over the same field and get about four inches of new soil which can then be incorporated into the old soil.
Traditionally, fields were cleared (e.g. plowed) before planting. Maryland was one of the national leaders about forty years ago in moving to “no-till” planting. No-till means to plant the seeds directly into the ground without plowing first. A good example of where we use no-till planting is in our pumpkin patch. The prior fall, we plant a cover crop of wheat or rye and let it protect the ground over the winter. Then when it is time to plant, we use a roller to “crimp” or push over the rye. By bending down the stalks, they stop growing and will decompose over time. Then we plant right into the pushed down stalks. The stalks keep the moisture in the ground by shading it and also help reduce the weeds by shading the weed seeds so the pumpkin plants get a head start before the weeds start again.
Sustainability in the Dairy
Sustainability within Woodbourne Creamery at Rock Hill Orchard starts with our grazing operation. We have a closed loop where the cows eat the grass, the cows make manure, this manure fertilizes the grasses, then the cows eat the new grass.
As our cows are outside all the time, they are naturally spreading their manure throughout the fields. With the managed grazing, where the cows move from field to field as the grass is eaten, this naturally keeps the grass cover on at all times so the ground doesn’t wash away as will happen when there is bare ground. The pastures themselves are a complete ecosystem as we don’t have a monoculture. While we started with about six varieties of grass and legumes, we now have many more due to the weeds that have come up. Some of the weeds are edible for the cows and others are mowed down before they can reproduce so they don’t spread too far. In addition, with a thick layer of permanent pasture, more moisture is trapped at ground level as the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly due to the shading and “thatch”.
Our cows walk from the fields into the dairy to be milked via permanent lanes. Think of these as roads for cows. The lanes ensure that the cows don’t turn a path into a muddy mess as they walk through during the rain. In addition, when there is a heavy layer of mud, the cows are more likely to go to the bathroom so then there is manure splashing up onto their udders which then causes mastitis. So no mud is a very good thing from a health perspective as well as a lack of runoff.
The lanes are about ten inches thick with a layer of geotextile fabric at the bottom, then 2” gravel, then a layer of slate. This works to make a very strong lane which won’t run off when there is a heavy rain and won’t turn into mud. We do find that once a year that we need to scrape off any manure that has accumulated on top as it doesn’t leave the lane.
We provide watering troughs for our cows in each field. Some fields have temporary waterers that we move from field to field and we also have permanent watering locations as well. Our permanent waterers are on concrete pads to minimize mud from all the cows being concentrated in one location. Each waterer has a tube going six feet into the ground which provides heat during the winter. The waterers are built with a ball that the cows push out of the way when they want to get water which minimizes freezing of the water. Even a few winters ago when the temperature was below zero degrees, the waterers never froze!
Within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it is illegal to spread manure from mid-November to mid-March as the soil can’t absorb the nutrients and they will just wash away. With the help of the NRCS, we installed a 280,000 gallon storage facility to store all manure, wash water, and run off from the dairy and processing facility. As the cows are on pasture, most of the time, we are primarily storing waste water as there isn’t much manure from insider the dairy itself. Once spring comes, we spray this water back onto the pasture to provide nutrients as well as irrigation. We always keep the cows away from these areas for at least a week to provide time for the water to soak into the ground. Throughout the rest of the year, we try to empty the tank every 30-60 days in order to gain the most benefit of this source of water and fertilizer.
At Rock Hill Orchard, we use cover crops throughout the year. A cover crop is a crop that is planted to “cover” the soil and typically to provide a benefit as well. Most cover crops are planted in the fall to cover the soil over the winter and to minimize any runoff. But some cover crops will improve the amount of nitrogen in the field by bringing the nitrogen up its roots from several feet underground to near the surface. Then in the spring, the cover crop is either mowed down or crimped, which then provides additional benefits to the soil as the crop decomposes.