From Tobacco to Cattle: Md. Farmer Finds New Direction

3/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

Robert Yates Clagett grew up on a tobacco farm in southern Maryland and never expected to do anything else when he returned from college.

In 1992, two-thirds of all crops in southern Maryland (five counties) were cultivating tobacco. The monoculture had been profitable since the earliest days of settlement in Maryland.

“Maryland type 32 was the gold standard for decades. It was a prized tobacco. Europeans loved it. Very little of it went to domestic production,” Clagett said. “The thought process down here was tobacco, that’s how you’re going to make it. I went through college planning for tobacco farming. Then the tobacco market collapsed around me.”

The lawsuit that forced tobacco companies to make restitution for years of selling cigarettes without labels warning that smoking posed health hazards created conditions that almost wiped out tobacco farming where it first began.

Then Gov. Paris Glendenning used a portion of the tobacco restitution fund to persuade tobacco farmers to accept a buy-out. Farmers had to agree to stop growing tobacco but keep their land in agricultural production. Farmers who agreed, and remained completely out of the tobacco industry, could collect payments based on their average tobacco production for 10 years. Participating farmers got a dollar a pound based on their average harvest from 1996-98.

At the time, many farmers were extremely upset about it. But for older tobacco farmers in their 60s and 70s, it provided a retirement income.

“It was a blessing that allowed them to retire if they invested the money,” Clagett said. “For the younger tobacco farmers it was a tough choice, but they had three years to sign up for the program.

“Initially, I thought I could continue to raise tobacco and make as much or more than they were going to pay me,” he said. “What I didn’t realize is that once everyone else got out, the market collapsed.”

Buyers were not coming to Maryland to buy a small crop, Clagett said; they had been coming to southern Maryland to buy huge quantities of tobacco.

Today, there are a few in the Amish community and a few in the English farming community who raise Burley tobacco. Big tobacco companies contract with some for that.

Clagett said he thinks that some tobacco farmers are still making a good go of it, “but it’s a different type of tobacco; different leaf, heavier, and it’s all shipped up to Pennsylvania.”

So, in 2004, Clagett became one of the last farmers to grow tobacco and most of the family’s holdings were rented to a grain farmer. He was also working as a farm manager for a large grain operation in Charles County. And then he found out about a job opening with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and jumped on the chance.

It occurred to him that if he was going to advise others about how to farm, he ought to have some skin in the game himself, he said.

His wife had a horse, which they grazed with another horse on a 15-acre enclosed pasture on his cousin’s farm next door. Keeping it up after the other horse died began to be a chore, and it occurred to him that a couple of cows would help keep the weeds down.

And that began his almost accidental return to farming.

“I bought six commercial Black Angus cows. A good friend of mine had a bull and encouraged me to breed them.”

Soon he had 12 cows and then more than he needed. But to realize a profit, he had to figure out how to get them to market.

“I talked to Michael Heller at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation farm in Upper Marlboro, who encouraged me to look into direct marketing my beef.”

Although he hadn’t planned it, his yearlings were grass-fed, primarily because the available supply of grass on his farm didn’t force him to supplement their feed with grain. He sent a few of his cows to market with Heller, sold “beef quarters” and kept some for his own use.

He liked the beef and he found out that his potential customers also preferred grass-fed beef. He began thinking seriously about how to improve the cows’ diet, breaking up pastures and managing the grass. He also looked closely at animals that were genetically bred to convert grass to protein. That led him to purchase a Wye cow and calf to improve his stock.

Now, seven years down the road, his stock is primarily from the University of Maryland’s Wye Angus herd on the Eastern Shore, cows that were genetically bred to get the perfect animals to convert grass into meat.

“What ended up happening was that it improved my efficiency — finishing cows at 1,200 pounds instead of 700 to 800.”

Now he runs 22 animals on his farm.

“The meat is so much better than my first harvest 8-10 years ago and I’ve been able to make some money on the farm.”

Raising grass-fed cattle involves intensive rotational grazing.

“I started planting annuals like pearl millet, oats, forage radishes (cows like the tops of them). Forage radishes break up the soil and, when the tuber rots, it releases stored water and creates organic matter,” Clagett said. “In the spring, I plant the millet and the cows graze there from June to early August while fescue and orchardgrass are dormant in the pasture.

“Millet is drought tolerant and will spring back up if left alone for a while,” he said. “I turn under the millet in late August and plant forage radishes and oats to graze through November. This year they popped back up in the spring to take the cattle through April because of a mild winter. Then June to late July when everything else is dormant, they eat Bermuda grass.

“We’ve looked at other forages,” he said. “A neighbor has successfully grazed Eastern Gama Grass. I plant clover to help fix nitrogen. I don’t use commercial fertilizer in the pasture — the cows do it, that’s where the rotational grazing pays off. I only use fertilizer on the hay.”

Another reason he doesn’t use fertilizer is that, typically, tobacco land was not rotated so a lot of the soil is high in phosphorus. Using his cousin’s land as well as his own, he manages 40 acres of pasture and grows 30 acres of hay.

“Sales (of beef) have grown exponentially,” he said. “I need to expand but not quite ready to do that. The market is there. Now I am toying with the idea of coming back to the home farm and expanding here. There’s 60 acres I could farm.”

He admits that it would require an expensive capital input, but within the next three to four years he hopes to make that the finishing part and use what he has in production now as his breeding operation.

“Farming is the only business where you buy retail and sell wholesale,” he said, enumerating expenses from transportation, equipment, supplies and marketing of the product.

“Getting meat to market is a problem for everyone because the closest USDA-certified butcher is in Mount Airy (Maryland) or in Delaware,” Clagett said. “No matter where you travel from St. Mary’s County it’s an hour plus — the cows sitting on the trailer, confined and disrupted mentally and physically.”

From birth until they go to market, his cows are in an environment where they are calm. But when they get upset and agitated, he said, “I think it affects the quality of the beef. I wish it was a 15-20 minute trip.”

The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, on which he serves, has tried to address these concerns. They have done some studies and found there aren’t enough animals to entice a private company to come in and set up a slaughter operation.

“If a slaughter facility was here, maybe there would be,” Clagett said.

He said someone was trying to get a mobile slaughter facility up and going so he could go from farm to farm, which Clagett would like to see. “The guy has run into some zoning problems in St. Mary’s County.”

He still misses the tobacco.

“It was a way of life that had a year-round process and you touched every leaf of your crop yourself,” he said.

But for now he has the best of both worlds.

“I think I could farm full time and make some money, but the security of a job is hard to give up.”

Clagett, who has been president of the Prince George’s County Farm Bureau since 2009, enjoys the daily contact with other farmers, too. The Soil Conservation District where he works is the only one in Maryland that runs a land preservation program. Usually, these are run by local planning departments, but in Prince George’s County it just happened to work out differently.

“In the past 5-10 years, the council and the planning department have been open and they have included the farm bureau’s input. The county has changed its philosophy about development. It has put in new strong bold lines to define preservation area and passed one of the strongest right to farm’ bills in the state,” he said.

In Prince George’s County, they have also expanded the definition of farm zoning to include wineries and other less traditional kinds of agriculture. That has encouraged and reflected the transformation from monoculture to a diversity of agricultural enterprises.

“Just like a stock portfolio should be diversified, so should your farming business,” Clagett said. “The health of Maryland agriculture depends on keeping grain farmers able to operate here and keeping poultry operations, like Perdue, able to operate in Maryland. This underpins fairly reasonable food prices for Marylanders.

“Diversity is the key. My cattle may not be directly dependent on the chicken house, but the services that those chickens demand are services I need, too. Small farmers can’t survive alone.”<\c> Photo by Ann Wilmer

Yates Clagett’s Black Angus cattle graze on “Wonder Leaf” millet in a pasture on his Prince George’s County farm.

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