TRAPPE, Md. (AP) — As farmers across the Mid-Shore know, agriculture is a tough business, subject to uncontrollable circumstances such as weather, pests and ever-changing government regulations. Success requires a love of the land and a desire to persist, as Dixie Blades and Heather Grant demonstrate through resulting new customers and funding from government agencies, awarded this month to expand their microgreens project on Cool Beans Farm in Trappe.
The farm was recently selected to provide herbs for the Maryland Jockey Club's largest Farm to Table Dinner, held Preakness weekend in Baltimore. May 1, they were awarded grants from two government agencies to expand their business.
"We are proof that if you look for help to keep the small, family-owned farm going, you will find it," Blades said.
"It's nice to be part of such a special local tradition," she said of the Preakness event.
Located off Taylor Road, Cool Beans Farm is owned and run by Blades and Grant, who took over the farm from Blades' brother, David Langford, in 2012. They had helped Langford on the farm during his tenure, beginning in 2008, when it was a much bigger operation. But neither of the new owners had any prior farming experience.
The farm now consists of 10 rented acres including 12 greenhouses, three currently in production, and five acres for field use.
The microgreens grow year-round under heated, plastic greenhouses and are sold to high-end restaurants on the Eastern Shore and in the District of Columbia, Annapolis and Baltimore. It currently operates with only one part-time worker in addition to Blades and Grant.
In addition to the Preakness event, the farm also supplies fresh vegetables and microgreens to local restaurants such as Mitchum's Steak House, Out of the Fire, Peacock at 202 Dover and the Inn at Perry Cabin.
A Value Added Producer Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $43,300 will allow the farm to expand business in existing markets, hire workers to assist in planting and harvesting and develop marketing and advertising initiatives that include a new point-of-sale website.
"We are doing something different and we and the USDA feel that it can be profitable," Blades said. "It's a huge investment in our time and energy but we think it will be worth it."
The USDA grant requires matching funds and in-kind services which will partly come from $12,990 in matching funds from Maryland Agriculture and Resource Based Industry Development Corporation. The balance will be made up through cash and work provided by Grant and Blades.
Grant is the web director for Jefferson Communications, a publishing company in Annapolis. Blades works from home as a technical sales lead for Eastman Kodak. In addition to their full-time jobs, they raise 11-year-old twins, Ruby and Liam, and operate the farm as a part-time endeavor with the hope that it will someday support at least one of them full-time in additional to seasonal workers.
"We try to put an emphasis on eating locally and educating our kids and our extended family on knowing where their food comes from," Grant said. "The sacrifices we make to become farmers will show them that providing fresh, local food is something to be proud of."
Cool Beans Farm was the only grower chosen in Maryland. The other businesses included a winery and an oyster producer.
"We grow a unique local product," said Grant. "And that's how we plan to market it. Being a small, family-owned and women-owned business has been an advantage for us in this grant application process."
Microgreens are the harvested plants of various herbs and greens in their "cotyledon" stage one set of true leaves generally when they are between 1 inch and 2 inches tall. They include arugula, mizuna, beets, radishes, kale, mustards, amaranth and others, which are only grown for about 10 days before they are cut with scissors and mixed to supply different flavors. Packaged as "Spicy Mix," ''Mild Mix" or as individually packaged garnishes, these tiny greens pack a punch of flavor that is often stronger than the full-grown vegetable or green, Grant said.
Microgreens are grown in trays, in a sterile soil mixture in a heated environment. Watering takes place twice a day or on automated misters every few hours. Once cut, the dirt and roots are composted for other uses on the farm, the process is started all over again with new sterile dirt and new seeds.
They may be marketed as organically grown if the seed and soil are certifiably produced free of fertilizers and pesticides.
USDA Rural Development funds projects involving locally produced and marketed foods including cheese, wine, reduced-cholesterol dairy products, produce, packaged poultry, pork and beef products, and a variety of processed or prepared foods from locally grown fruits and vegetables.
"This support will benefit rural businesses and the communities where the recipients are located," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "These awards also will advance USDA's goals to develop a bio-based economy and support local and regional food systems."
Information from: The Star Democrat of Easton, Md., http://www.stardem.com