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Sustaining A Family Farming Legacy

Farm of the Year

Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm's multi-generational commitment to fostering positive environmental practices helps earn it the 2017-2018 Washington County Farm of the Year.

by Jane Schmidt and photos by Turner Photography Studio

Traveling west on Broad-fording Road toward Clear Spring, you leave behind the frenetic multi-lane highways, and journey past scenic, Wyeth-like landscapes filled with rolling fields, peacefully grazing livestock, historic farmhouses, and spectacular pastoral views representing both the heart of Washington County’s agrarian history and today’s modernized agricultural businesses.

Located just around Broadfording Road’s bend, the 500-plus acre Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm continues its historic legacy as a unique, thriving family-owned-and-operated agricultural business that remains an integral part of Washington County’s present-day agrarian community.

Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm was recently honored as the 2017–2018 Washington County Farm of the Year by The Washington County Department of Business Development’s Agricultural Business Development Office in recognition of its excellence and dedication to farming and agriculture, production, conservation, preservation, and community involvement.

The farm has earned several distinctions for its conservation and stewardship practices. In 2010, Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm was the first Maryland farm to receive the Certified Agricultural Conservation Steward Award. It also received the State of Maryland Smart Green and Growing 2011 Excellence in Agricultural Stewardship Award, and was featured in “Maryland Farm and Harvest” in November 2016.

“The dedication to the Clear Spring community, the steadfast commitment to the county and state agricultural community, the focus and long-term goals on high-quality animal breeding and production quality, and the economic vow and pledge to keep the Ernst family in agricultural production for over seven generations shows this family is here to stay for many generations to come,” shares neighbor Cody Pine, who nominated Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm for the award. 

Josh Ernst, who runs the farm full-time with help from his wife Kim, father Steve, and younger brother Micah, shares that his family didn’t know about the nomination. “It was quite a neat surprise that gave us all a great feeling of accomplishment,” he shares.

Part Of Local Farming History

Josh, who has an agriculture business degree from West Virginia University, is the fourth generation to farm the current location, with the original Ernst farm situated just one mile west. The Ernst family’s agrarian roots extend an impressive seven generations: Josh’s great-great-grandfather sold peaches on the nearby mountain, while his great-grandfather concentrated farm efforts on dairy production. In subsequent years, Josh’s grandfather, F. Carlton Ernst, focused on raising cows, sheep, and hogs. His aunts, Vera Mae Schultz and Betty Ann Bauer, are also farmers, and Vera Mae has served on the State Agriculture Preservation Board. Josh took over the farm full time after working it in partnership with his father.  

“Through each generation, changes have been made to best utilize resources, keeping in mind the long-term perspective of how each change impacts the farm, both in the present and in years to come,” relates Josh.

Growing With The Flow

Sustainability and adaptability have played pivotal roles in the Ernst family’s continued success within ever-changing agricultural business markets, as well as deep respect for the land and its bounty of gifts harvested over the years.

Three years ago, Steve suggested growing and selling non-GMO grains to expand the farm’s reach into developing agricultural markets. Grain bins capable of storing the total crop harvested from the previous year feature extensive moisture-control technologies so the farm can operate its grain business year-round. The farm grows a variety of crops, including soybeans, corn, cover crops, wheat, alfalfa, timothy, orchard grass, smooth brome hay, barley, and pearl millet, and has developed custom-blended grain products in small lots for specialty growers’ needs.

In addition to grains and crops, the farm shows great dedication to the hog and sheep industry. Ernst Grain and Livestock manages a 200-count flock of Dorset, Texel, Île-de-France, Dorper, Katahdin, and Polypay sheep, and 40 sows, featuring Poland China hogs and cross-bred varieties including Berkshire, Chester White, Yorkshire, Duroc, and Hampshire.  “We’ve developed a strong niche with direct marketers in the four-state region,” elaborates Josh.

The farm successfully established the development of breeding and crossbreeding programs for both its purebred and crossbred animals, including initiating a registered breeding program for its purebred Texel sheep population in 2016.

The farm’s seven outbuildings are part of a well-planned, multi-purposed infrastructure, which offers Josh widespread versatility. “My dad taught me to be adaptable. We talked about expanding into the non-GMO grain feed market, carrying through with our continued goal to be good stewards. The land is a gift we need to take care of. We are always looking for more opportunities to not only increase and balance our sustainability and profitability, but opportunities that help us take the best care possible of our land and resources,” Josh shares.

Keepers Of The Land

The Ernst family continues its tradition as a steward of conservation in its livestock and grain-growing practices. The farm maintains stringent soil conservation efforts, including a “no-till” policy implemented by Josh’s grandfather. “Some fields have been ‘till-free’ since 1940. All fields have been ‘no-till’ for 30 years,” explains Josh.

“We plant no-till cover crops to protect the soil and prevent erosion, keeping soil nutrients intact to maintain a very healthy soil base requiring less fertilizer. No-till gives us the highest quality grain yields, which we then use to feed animals, bred on our farm, as well as sell commercially to livestock farmers. Our customers know our grains are grown here. They know what their animals are eating and how it was produced,” he explains. The farm also utilizes riparian and grass buffers that help increase wildlife habitats and cover crops. Its sheep flock helps soil management of farm pastures through carefully monitored grazing practices.

Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm also places heavy emphasis on education and testing to assure it achieves quality livestock and grains with minimal impact on the environment. “I use a lot of technology to monitor the quality of all our products. I am always using my phone and computer,” shares Josh, who designed the farm’s website. “We also have a social media presence that makes our customers feel connected and part of our farm.”

Additionally, the farm works with several agrarian programs throughout Maryland, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Cooperative Extension, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “These educational opportunities are great ways for us and other farmers to help each other. It’s also great when our feed customers come in and we share farming experiences,” Josh shares. “We get a lot of people coming here. We gladly provide information, share knowledge and maintain visibility. We let customers know exactly what we do and what is in our feed. We have public recognition of both our farm and products.”

Josh and his family enjoy the agrarian life they have built over the years. “My dad has worked a full-time job as well as farmed his whole life to make it so I can be here full-time. Instead of keeping profits for himself, he has invested in infrastructure that greatly improves efficiency and made it so this farm can successfully support a family. He has let me try new ideas since I came on board, and offers me great guidance and trust in decision-making. It’s a great lifestyle. We’re blessed that we live right next door to my grandmother. I strive to take care of it the best way I can and to keep it in the family. I worked with my grandfather and while there’s a lot that’s different, I think he would be impressed with what Ernst Grain and Livestock Farm has become,” concludes Josh.