On a pleasant summer afternoon, Todd Greenstone is supervising a construction project, directing trucks loaded with hay, helping a customer select just the right hay for thoroughbred race horses and checking in with the young men working on his combine.
Greenstone farms in Montgomery County, Maryland, an area where most farmland has been replaced by houses. Although he was born in nearby Washington, D.C., Greenstone’s father’s job moved the family to State College, PA, where they enjoyed a more rural lifestyle. The family eventually returned to the D.C. area and continued the rural lifestyle with poultry, horses and other livestock. Greenstone found that he enjoyed raising and showing livestock, and transferred to a high school that had an active FFA program. After high school, he graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in agriculture.
“I was working the whole time I was going to school,” said Greenstone. “I cut firewood and started selling straw when I was about 15. I bought a little Ford tractor, and bought a 3020 John Deere tractor right out of high school in 1974.”
At that time, development of some of the area farmland was just beginning, so there were numerous vacant lots. Greenstone took advantage of the opportunity to make hay. “When I originally came up with the idea of custom farming, I went around and mowed small fields and pastures, then started no-tilling horse pastures and planting grass seed,” he recalls. “I bought a mower-conditioner, a baler and a couple of wagons. At the time, there were still a lot of people still cutting hay with a sickle bar and running it through a crimper.”
For his next move in establishing a custom farming operation, Greenstone purchased a no-till corn planter and a no-till drill. “I bought one of the first no-till drills in the area,” he said, describing one of his mid-1970s purchases. “It was a haybuster drill. Some other area farmers were starting to use no-till techniques, and I attended seminars whenever I could.”
Greenstone recalls the first crop he planted using no-till was soybeans. “That was never heard of,” he said. “It was being promoted by the University of Maryland. Bob Raver was our extension agent, and he took us over to the other side of the county where they were starting to no-till corn. Everyone was skeptical. Bob thought that we could use it to plant soybeans, but soybeans weren’t being grown in Montgomery County, Maryland. I rented a farm and planted about 100 acres in soybeans — we had Williams, Williams 79 and Union (varieties). Everybody thought I was crazy. That year, soybeans brought $9.90/bushel, and those beans made about 45 bushels/acre. And they were planted no-till.” Greenstone added that after he started growing soybeans in the county, other farmers followed his lead and had good results.
Another area in which Greenstone led the way for other area farmers was with the use of cover crops. He often used barley, rye, wheat or vetch following cash crops and saw the benefits of keeping the soil covered. In addition to using cover crops, Greenstone soil tests regularly and applies compost made on the farm as a soil amendment.
“What came into play here in the last 25 years here is that all of the small horse farms have nowhere to take manure,” said Greenstone. “My partner picked up horse manure, and we brought it back here and composted it and spread it on the fields according to our nutrient management plan. We always tested it before we spread it, and built up the soil that had been farmed to death. There’s a big market for hay, and we provide an outlet for manure.”
For the past 17 years, Greenstone has been working in partnership with the owner of a tree company who brings clippings and other vegetative matter for composting. The combination of sawdust, manure, wood chips, leaves and other materials are composted, tested and amended to adjust nutrient content.
Although the growing season is relatively short and Greenstone is accustomed to dealing with extremes in weather conditions, his thriving hay business is busy year-round. During most seasons, he gets five cuttings of hay, and stores it in several buildings on the farm. One storage building was a former boathouse in Baltimore that he and his partner moved to the farm. Although Greenstone has a moisture tester, he usually relies on his years of experience to determine when hay is ready to bale. Just as he does with his crops, Greenstone amends hay fields with compost according to his nutrient management plan.
Greenstone is currently farming about 850 acres of crops within a 20-mile radius of his home farm. Of that, about 170 acres is hay, along with 45 acres of wheat followed by soybeans and 30 acres of spring barley for malting. “We also planted 195 acres of full-season beans, 200 acres of corn, 94 acres of grain sorghum, five acres of pumpkins and five acres of sunflowers for cutting.”
The construction project Greenstone is overseeing is the erection of two grain bins; one for storage and one with a drying floor. “Two beer farms are interested in using everything grown within a five-mile radius,” he said. “I have sorghum planted, and they’ll malt it and use it for beer. My plan is to fill one bin with corn to see if the price goes up, and use the one with the drying floor for grain sorghum and sell it for malting a natural, gluten-free beer.”
Greenstone has built solid relationships in the community, mostly among his numerous hay customers. Many customers come to the farm, pick up hay, and leave a check or cash for the hay in an old-fashioned cash box. For the horse owners he works with to improve their pastures or hayfields, Greenstone determines whether they need a nutrient management plan and directs them to the right people who can help with that. Because some farms need quite a bit of help with pasture renovation and haven’t any soil sampling done, Greenstone encourages them to have that done and he surveys for weeds. “I try to encourage them to fertilize and start a mowing program,” he said. “Then in fall or spring, I drill seed into it.”