Journey to Soil Health… with Bob Arnold, Arnold Farms

Journey to Soil Health… with Bob Arnold, Arnold Farms

Farm Age: Since 1988

Farm Size: 330 acres 

Product/Output: Vegetables

Region: Queen Anne County, Eastern Shore of Maryland

Favorite Piece of Farm Equipment: His plow, because it symbolizes a fresh start and new beginnings

A mere 2,000 feet from the Chester River on Arnold Farms, Bob Arnold gently pet his dog while gazing over an eggplant harvest. Since an early age, his love for the outdoors and comfort with the natural world has inspired his longtime commitment to farming. Bob purchased his farmland in northern Queen Anne County 33 years ago. Growing as many as 400 acres of vegetables there in past seasons, Bob and his farm manager, Margaret Frothingham, oversaw 60-70 acres of vegetables for the 2020 growing season. 


Today, Bob employs intensive cover cropping to improve the health of his soil. However, this has not always been his primary soil health strategy. This farmer’s soil health journey began in 1988 when he incorporated vast amounts of chicken manure onto his fields to fertilize his vegetables. In combination with limited cover cropping, this strategy grew  crops, but led to a high phosphorus index and a necessary shift to a chemical fertility program. 


Over time, however, Bob noticed declines in yield and quality. Looking for alternatives, he recalled some wisdom from a mentor: “Bob, you should have something growing on your ground all the time. As soon as you take a crop off, put something else on there that is growing, that is holding the soil in place and feeding the soil.” 


With this advice in mind, he began to research ways to improve the health of the farm’s soil. He became part of what he sees as a larger movement in the Chesapeake Bay watershed: using cover crops to develop healthier soils and waterways. 


“I think that here in the state of Maryland we take cover crops very seriously,” Bob says. “I think it’s pretty thoroughly documented now that cover crops are benefitting our environment.” 


Bob refers to his peers in Maryland as “some of the best farmers in the country” due to their early adoption and implementation of environmentally-friendly techniques, such as cover crops. He recommends all Maryland farmers use cover crops — if they do not already — since he predicts it will be a standard practice throughout the entire country within the next decade. Arnold Farms most commonly uses crimson clover, vetch, and rye — sourced from the farm itself — for their cover crops. Incorporating these fall cover crops sets the stage for next year’s yield, particularly in combination with no till vegetable farming of pumpkins and squash.


Bob has reduced the amount of tillage on his land in order to create healthier soil, but that doesn’t come without its challenges. One of his biggest issues is weed pressure from using no till or reduced till practices. Bob’s approach highlights the fact that even the best strategies do not always immediately create results, and that a true commitment to soil health can involve trial and error to overcome unexpected complications.


 “If we didn’t think that we were seeing an improvement in the overall health of our crops, we wouldn’t spend the money,” Bob says. “It’s an impact that we feel the expense is worth it.” 


Bob understands that his farm’s soil health is part of a larger picture, one larger than agriculture alone. As he says, “Soil health is critical to the survival of our species.”