Like many farms, as well as backyards in Maryland, Chesapeake Gold Farms has to deal with heavy clay soil. This can be tough to work with due to its poor drainage, compaction issues and limited nutrients. However, instead of letting this hinder their farming, Wes and Amanda Miller say that for over 30 years the farm has used a byproduct of mushroom farming known as Spent Mushroom Substrate (SMS).
“We raise 85% of the feed that our animals eat. We have heavy clay soil so we use SMS as a soil amendment,” Amanda says. “The benefit of SMS is that it helps improve our soil structure and drainage, and builds organic matter.” Wes adds, “Healthy soils are more resistant to erosion, can hold more water and nutrients. Healthy soils also produce healthier, higher-yielding crops, which are able to better handle stress such as extreme heat or drought.”
SMS is a byproduct of the mushroom industry. After mushrooms have been harvested, the substrate on which they were grown is typically discarded. However, this material, which is rich in organic matter and nutrients, can be a valuable resource for agriculture. “We are about 30 minutes from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, which is the mushroom capital of the world,” Amanda says. “There are many mushroom houses around our area that supply us with compost.”
Chesapeake Gold Farms is not just reducing waste, but also improving their farm’s soil by making clever use of mushroom industry leftovers. The organic matter in SMS helps break up compacted clay soils, allowing for better water infiltration and root penetration. This results in improved drainage, reducing the risk of waterlogged soil and root diseases. “It also boosts our soil microbial activity. It has a nice mix of macro and micronutrients for replenishing our soil for the next crop and it also has a more basic pH so we can use it to boost our soil pH levels as well,” Amanda adds.
Wes says that in addition to SMS, they do a lot of different things on their farm to help promote soil health. “We use no-till as often as possible. No-till soils have better aggregate structure allowing for more airspace to help the plant’s root structure breathe,” he says. “We use cover crops to stabilize the soil and scavenge any remaining nutrients over the winter between crops. We split apply our fertilizer and use volatilization inhibitors to reduce the risk of a big rain event washing it away.”
This approach not only benefits their farm but also gives a big high-five to the world of sustainable agriculture.