Better Know a Local Farmer – David Heisler of Comus Markets

I first heard David Heisler of Comus Market in Comus, MD (northern Montgomery County, near Sugarloaf Mountain) at a class on cover crops organized a couple years ago by Chuck Schuster, head of the University of Maryland Extension office in Montgomery County. I was particularly impressed by the passion and caring with which David spoke about pollinators, and especially bees. The second time I heard him was on a panel at the Farming at Metro’s Edge conference last January. When asked to sum up his farming philosophy in a single word he said “biodiversity” – which in this author’s memory was the only time that very special word
David Heisler leading the squash blossom tour.

was used during the conference. I was encouraged to hear he is on the Montgomery County Agricultural Advisory Committee, and that his guidance and ideas are increasingly sought after.

I figured I had to meet this special Montgomery County farmer and see how he does his work, and David was kind enough to invite me (and my buddy David Vismara, Chief of Horticulture for Montgomery County Parks) to one of his “squash blossom tours” this past August – a trip I would highly recommend to anyone who cares about how good food is grown in Montgomery County. (That’s David leading the tour at right.) I had the chance to talk with him after the tour:

David, how long have you been farming in Montgomery County?

A long time.
I grew up In Boyd’s, Maryland on a Dairy Farm. My extended family was a mix of farmers and white-collar workers. The town of Boyd was known as a “Friendly Farm Community” back then. Not sure how long I’ve been “farming,” exactly. Being born within a farm family in a farm community…. your knowledge base starts pretty early. My Grandfather Harvel let me pick a ripe peach off a tree when I was five years old. I was with my Grandfather Heisler checking on his Honeybee’s at the age of six.

What made you decide to specialize in winter squash?

Can’t say it was any particular decision on my part. More of an evolution. But I will say that winter squash is a type of “super-food”: very tasty, very nutritious and it comes in its own container so it can last for months without special storage.

I was mightily pleased to hear you use the word “biodiversity” at the Farming at Metro’s Edge conference earlier this year. What does biodiversity mean to you, and why is it so important on the farm?

It means diversity of life in all its forms. I farm to support as much life and as diverse a collection of life as possible in, around and thru my fields. As for the importance of biodiversity on the farm: think of the landscape as a chessboard, a patchwork of areas (fields, fencerows, forest, ponds, creeks and meadows) that are occupied with a host of different players (life forms). Some competing, some working together but all have various degrees of influence and purpose. The more players, the less likely any one player (a pest) takes over the game. (The picture at right shows you some of David Heisler’s “chessboard” fields, with plots of different squashes and pumpkins being separated by swaths of gloriously blooming buckwheat.)

When I’ve heard you speak, you place a very special emphasis on pollinators, and in particular bees, and we certainly saw swarms of them during the squash blossom tour. Why are they so important to you, and what do you do to support bees and other pollinators in your farming practices?

Pollinators play a huge role! They are the work force of Mother Nature. They are the little engines thatHeisler – butterfly connect the blossoms of male and female plants, allowing them to reproduce. Whether one is a hunter-gatherer or farmer it is this bounty we harvest. Apples, peaches, pumpkins, and squash are examples of fruits pollinated by bees. There are also legumes and herbs, trees, shrubs and wildflowers. These require bees to allow their reproduction but also support the harvest of nectar for honey and food sources for other insects and animals. All playing some roll in Mother Nature’s game of chess.

On our tour you said, “to observe something you have to move slower than it does.” Can you tell us your philosophy and practice of observation on the farm?

Stop and watch! Observations and taking notes should include all your senses and all the seasons. Try not to don’t jump to conclusions about those observations or you’ll spend a lifetime changing your mind.

I’ve noticed that while you are incredibly attuned to insects and animals and using natural practices when you farm, you are not certified organic. Why not?

Just doesn’t work for me. “Certified Organic” is too limited in nature for me. (Pun intended) I’m biased but I think our landscape would be better off if stores in the D.C. Metro area stocked my produce instead of “Certified Organic” from CA or Mexico.

There is a large and growing public concern about the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture, and their effect on both human and environmental health – and in particular their effect on pollinators, given evidence that some pesticides might be implicated in the dramatic decrease in bee populations known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” What precautions do you take when using any pesticides or herbicides? And what would you say to reassure food-lovers who are concerned about any use of these chemicals on their food?

This is a confusing area for a lot of consumers, with a lot of misinformation out there. “Pesticide” is a general term for a class of inputs. Insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are all Pesticides. Certified Organic growers can and will use pesticides on there crops.

An organic insecticide may be extracted from a plant verses a man made chemical version which would not be considered organic. To the insect the poison is the same, it kills. The man made version may have benefits to a farmer an organic version may not. Ease of use, safety, storage, price, effectiveness and post harvest interval are just a few things that can play a roll in the decision to use one type of pesticide over another.

Any pesticide can have unintended negative effects on a worker or the environment or even the produce if misused.

My pumpkins and squash have been grown free of insecticide use for five years now. (A few of David’s young acorn squashes, with blossoms, at right.) I use cover crops to improve soil nutrition. If I need to add any nutrients, N, P, K. or a micro nutrient like Boron I’ll apply it to my cover crop and let the cover crop release it back to my cash crop later. Because of my “Chess Board” approach no wide spread use of any input is required.

As for the protection of honeybees and colony collapse disorder, my take is that it is not limited to pesticide use. My experiences tell me different combinations of factors that cause similar symptoms may cause Colony Collapse Disorder – and the biggest single factor for our decline of bees, birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects is habitat loss.

Every single one of us has played a part in this. For the most part unknowingly. Most of you can reverse that too. Here’s how: let a flowerbed just go, or a back section of your yard! (Meaning grow on it’s own, no weeding or watering.) Let it grow! Don’t mow.

Thru the course of a year walk out to that patch and stop and watch. Over time you’ll hopefully observe some of wonders of bio-diversity you’ve been missing.

There’s no question that you grow winter squash for food as opposed to holiday ornaments, and they’re some of the best tasting squash around. What varieties do you grow?

I grow about forty varieties. They all have their own uniqueness in color, texture, flavor and sweetness. Size can be a factor for consumers since some delicious pumpkins are so large. I grow several Acorn Squash Varieties that are small enough to use whole or halved and be of a convenient serving size.

Any favorite recipe you want to share?

Take an acorn squash cut in half, scoop out the seeds and bake in an oven. (40 minutes at 350 degrees) The cavity on the acorn squash allows them to be stuffed. Be creative when stuffing, as squash flavors can dance with sweet or savory additions – one of my easiest and favorite is Macaroni and Cheese! (David’s photo at right is of carnival squash – but you can stuff a lot of ‘em!)

Thanks, David, for your thoughtful farming practices and your willinness to share your insights. Best wishes for a great fall season! And all you MVG readers – make a point to visit Comus Markets to fill all your pumpkin and winter squash needs – you’ll never taste better! – Gordon Clark, Project Director, MVG