For the Love of Legumes: Sustainable Urban Micro-Scale Grains and Dried Beans On a Demonstration Farm in Baltimore City

Progress report for FNE22-021

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,806.00
Projected End Date: 03/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Farm Alliance of Baltimore
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Denzel Mitchell, Jr.
Farm Alliance of Baltimore
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Project Information


This project seeks to explore and demonstrate the profitability of sustainably grown legumes and oats over two years, and whether they can be grown with enough yields to be profitable in the direct-to-consumer and wholesale markets in Baltimore City.  Our methods include weighing and recording all seed weights at planting and harvest, plant growth by height, plant health (color of foliage), weed and pest pressures. Both plots received soil testing, were solarized and tilled during the 2022 summer season. Plot A was partitioned into 4 mini plots planted on different dates: F1: corn and  beans intercropped, F2: corn and beans, F3: corn, F4: corn/beans. Crops in Plot A: F1 and F3 had the lowest germination rate and were most susceptible to pests. We assume these plots did not grow as well because of malfunction with our seeder and planting midway into the growing season. Plot B was planted in a cover crop known for  weed suppression, Good scavenger of N and other leachable nutrients and excellent fall growth and biomass.

We designated a test plot of  oats in a nearby field that has been amended with compost and essential nutrients to compare and contrast data points. The test plot of oats serves as cover crop for an existing field and deer deterrent from Plot A and Plot B. 

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to explore and demonstrate the profitability of sustainably grown legumes and oats over two years, and whether they can be grown with enough yields to be profitable in the direct-to-consumer and wholesale markets in Baltimore City. This will show the 37 Black farmers in our existing Farm Alliance membership, trainees and interns whether it is economically viable for them to devote their own farms' resources to growing these crops at their micro-scale urban farms. Using our teaching farm in South Baltimore to teach Black urban farmers to grow these crops, some of which are African American heritage crops, our objective is to help these farmers adopt new crops that will improve their sales, conserve their soils' health, and thus improve economic outcomes on their urban farms in the long term.


The Problem: Farm Alliance of Baltimore has around 80 farmers and community gardeners in its membership, around 46% of whom (37) are Black. Baltimore is a majority-Black city (63%), Black farmers are a growing sector here, and yet we lack market support and opportunities for Black urban farmers. Farm Alliance of Baltimore is working actively to increase support and remove barriers for Black urban farmers, placing them and their needs at the center of our programs. These farmers, including our trainees in the Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy funded by a current SARE Research & Education grant, tell us that they want more examples and training in how to sustainably grow crops that our majority-Black communities will eat. Farmers in our membership, as well as our trainees, will learn that small grains and culturally relevant legumes such as black-eyed peas can be grown at a small-scale using sustainable methods such as low and no-till planting methods, cover cropping, apiculture, killed mulches, green manure, trap cropping to reduce deer pressure, and more. 

With this project, we will lay the groundwork for creating economic and marketing opportunities for beginning and burgeoning Black urban farmers by demonstrating that storage crops such as oats and dried beans, can be grown sustainably at a micro-scale, albeit with smaller yields than the same crops grown conventionally. However, research shows the methods that we will use to grow these crops will have a much lower environmental impact and much higher benefit on the overall soil health. To benefit the 37 Black farmers in our existing Farm Alliance membership and the 10 new trainee farmers in our 2022-2023 cohort of the Black Butterfly program, we will explore the profitability of these crops and whether they can be grown with enough yields to be profitable in the direct-to-consumer and wholesale markets in Baltimore City.  Through our partnership with Holistic Wellness and Health, we will also get the farm products into our community cooking demonstrations as our education and outreach component. We expect this to help improve quality of life for farmers and their families in Baltimore by helping to increase food sovereignty and self-sufficiency for urban communities, a goal that is shared with our other SARE-funded grant program, the Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy. Because we are concurrently running a SARE-funded farmer training program in addition to this SARE farmer grant we are proposing to start in March of 2022, and with some of the same staff involved, SARE will also likely see improved outcomes from both grants. Our expected outcomes for this grant include:

  • We will demonstrate sustainable methods for growing oats and legumes in Baltimore City on the Black Butterfly Teaching farm — cover cropping, nitrogen fixation, trap cropping, intercropping planting methods and the other methods listed in the Proposal Overview-- and our research will answer the question of how these methods affect yields compared with the more prevalent conventional growing methods.
  • We will establish a market initiative to increase diversity in the locally-grown food chain. By bringing our crops to our direct-to-consumer stand at the 32nd St. Farmers Market in Waverly in Baltimore, we will be able to increase human-scale small grain production in a city-based food market.
  • We will demonstrate the economic viability of small grain and dried beans production in small urban plots for other small diversified farmers. With roughly half an acre, across two 10,000 square foot plots at our teaching farm, we will be able to show other farmers in our membership network how to grow these crops at a scale much closer to the scale of their urban farms than we normally see in rural farm trials. To do this, just as doctors hold Grand Rounds in teaching hospitals to demonstrate medical techniques, we will host a series of field days for FAB members and other growers in the area, to demonstrate our progress and the methods we are employing on these crops as they grow on our farm. 

We will show the beneficial impact of a 2-year cover crop rotation on soil health in an urban plot.
We will measure the macro and micronutrients in our soils with tests at the beginning and end of each cycle. Tests at the start of the program and ending to see if there is a marked change from when we started to when we ended.

Description of farm operation:

The Black Butterfly Farm is a project of the urban agriculture non-profit organization the Farm Alliance of Baltimore. Our mission is to use connection, resource sharing, and collective advocacy with respect to food, land and water to expand communities’ self-determination and power. On a 6.7 acre site located in South Baltimore, we operate a teaching and demonstration farm that will be the primary teaching and incubator site for the Black Butterfly Urban Farm Academy. Of the four farmers we have on staff, 3 are dedicated to the management of our farm. With over 30 years of combined experience, we are embarking on our second full season of teaching intensive, urban, human-scaled production methods and growing product for farmers’ markets, restaurants, and community partners. We will be purchasing specialized equipment to better execute the project this year.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Myeasha Taylor (Educator and Researcher)
  • Marcus Williams - Technical Advisor
  • Andy Szentendrei (Educator)


Materials and methods:

This study will allow the farmers to plant roughly half an acre (2 10,000 square foot plots of rolling fallow land) on our existing teaching farm in Farring-Baybrook located in Baltimore City in oats, dent corn, dried beans and peanuts for 2 years.

It is our attempt to answer a nagging question for many human-scaled diversified growers: Are we growing cheap food that will make the grower money or are we attempting to address food security issues by decentralizing food production and thereby diversifying what is available in the marketplace? We know that for many small-scaled farmers, they are often searching for ways to diversify their offerings without creating more layers of difficulty or complication. We also know that grain raising will create access to highly-nutritious foods in a market that often does not receive nutrient-dense foods. Our aim is to demystify grain and dried bean production for the small urban farmer and create some possibility to incorporate new production models for small diversified food farms. Finally, to work in collaboration with other farmer-processors and mills in the area to  make these foods available to consumers. 

On our 6.7 acre plot of land, it is appropriate to set aside less than half of an acre to demonstrate an innovative production method that may inspire others to do the same but also teach a higher level of food production and hence food access to the next 2 cohorts of trainees in the Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy.

Our process will include the following: Marking off the fields and taking soil core samples from two 10,000 square foot plots on the Black Butterfly Teaching Farm in Farring-Baybrook Park in south Baltimore City.

We will send the soil samples to University of Delaware's soil sciences laboratory for analysis of nutrient composition and amendment recommendation in preparation for planting oats.

During the winter of 2022, we will solarize the land to create stale seed beds while still keeping the moisture and biomass from the existing vegetation. 

The project’s planned methods are to plant a catch crop of Streaker hulless oats on fallow solarized ground in March 2022 to harvest in early-June 2022. At the current expectations for small-scale organic grain production, we can expect to harvest about 500 pounds. Once proper moisture content in the grain is achieved, they will be combine harvested by Purple Mountain Organics. We will then transport the oats to be  hulled, cleaned, sorted and bagged at Next Step Produce. 

The oat residue will be removed by hand using "shoulder-to-shoulder" hours of the trainees. Depending on soil conditions, we  will then plant beans for a fall harvest following one of these 2 processes:

  • spade or roto-till the oat stubble in to incorporate biomass and increase fertility; then prep seed beds for direct seeding of beans 
  • or rake and remove the oat residue from the field; flail mow the stubble and no-till drill in beans

Depending on the grain harvest and bed prep, we will plant a short-season bean crop, preferably black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata) or pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan) in late-June/early-July. Both varieties are:

  • short-season bush-type varieties that will mature in 65-80 days depending on weather, atmospheric and soil conditions
  • are easily recognizable and commonly legumes among African-American, Afro-Latinx, Caribbean communities
  • popular in "southern" American cuisine
  • commonly consumed among Black populations during the winter holiday season
  • are historic or heirloom varieties 
  • can be hand-harvested and eaten freshly "shelled" from the field, if weather conditions do not allow us to let the stand dry down

The beans will be grown to maturity and then allowed to dry down in the field for mechanical harvest; to then be cleaned, sorted, and bagged for direct-to-consumer sale. 

The land will receive a "rest period" from an overwintering  cover crop cocktail that will keep the soil covered, mitigate weed pressure, reduce erosion, increase organic matter. The stand of cover crop will winterkill, providing a nutrient-rich seed bed for the next year's crops. 

We plan to commit to repeating this cycle for 2 seasons.

We will conduct at least 4 soil nutrient tests on the fields over the course of the study. We will pull soil samples on the plots in late-winter of 2022 to get a baseline of  available nutrients to the catch and cash crops. Then pull samples again in the late-fall of 2022, after the first bean harvest. We expect a significant increase in nitrogen levels due to the nitrogen fixation properties of legumes and increased soil aeration moisture content from deep and extensive grasses root growth.  We will pull soil nutrient samples at the same times of year in 2023. This will give a total of 4 fertility samples of the same soil. We will compare the changes in nutrient content, organic matter, root growth, water retention and tilth. We expect a significant improvement in the health and structure of the soil at the farm from March 2022 to November 2023.We will show the beneficial impact of a 2-year cover crop rotation on soil health in an urban plot. We will measure the macro and micronutrients in our soils with tests at the beginning and end of each cycle. 

We will partner with Purple Mountain Organics as a contractor and advisor on this study. Purple Mountain Organics has proven to be an exemplary leader in small-scale peri-urban organic grain and bean production and are this region's source of information, inspiration and model from which we are patterning this study. They use small-scaled, imported mechanization tools to plant, harvest and combine both grains and beans.

Additional support and advice will come from Migrash Farm located outside of Randallstown, MD in the Patapsco River Watershed.

We will use sustainable, regenerative and environmentally beneficial methods to conduct the study. We do not now nor will we knowingly apply or use any input that is environmentally or systemically toxic to humans, livestock, fish  or wildlife including non-target insects, microbes, and plants. 

We will use hand cultivation for weed management as a portion of our farmer-to-farmer component of the Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy. There will be 10 trainees from our program to assist but this study also will provide them with an opportunity to learn about a new production model.  We will also use the cultivation tools on the BCS walk-behind tractor to manage the walkways and edges. 

We will manage deer pressure by erecting a 2-dimensional fencing system and planting a trap crop of leafy greens to lure them from grazing on the bean and grain foliage.

The harvested grains and beans will be cleaned, sorted and processed at Next Step Produce in Newburg, MD or Migrash Farm in Randallstown, MD. Both farmer owners have agreed to provide technical assistance and contract the use of their grain cleaning equipment for this project.  They are  current innovators in small grains production, cleaning, processing and milling in the Chesapeake food region. 

Our methods of evaluation will include the following:

  • Weigh the oat and bean harvests and compare the yields from growing seasons 1 and 2. 
  • Compare the 4 soil tests over the 2 seasons
  • Compare market impact by tracking sales
  • Marcus Williams, our extension office and technical advisor on this project, has agreed to write a paper on the study and have it published. 


Research results and discussion:

We measured plant seed germination, pest/disease damage, weed pressure, and plant stage growth by ft. We assumed that the conditions of the crops we planted were due to the following:

-soil health deficiency since we did not add compost or fertilizers 

- timing of planting intercepted plant reaching full maturity

The dent corn reached up to 4-5ft by the end of the season  between the V10-VT in the vegetative state where it enters a critical stage of pollination that could eventually turn the potential kernels into developing kernels. Both tassels and silk emerged. However, we did not reach 50% silking in either of the four plots. During our soil coaching session, it was revealed to us that our soil’s health was insufficient for the corn to complete the silking process.

image of Plot 1 (corn only)
Plot 4: Corn and beans intercropped
Plot 4: Corn and beans intercropped
Plot 2 Dent Corn intercropped with beans 10/18
Plot 2 Dent Corn intercropped with beans 10/18
Plot 3: Corn only
Plot 3: Corn only

Research conclusions:

Our research sought to answer the question if we could create economic and marketing opportunities for growing oats and dried beans as a food crop, with the understanding that those plants have a lower extraction impact and higher return benefit on soil health. However, due to constraints beyond our control  in the 2022 season, we did not yield a harvest from either. 

Because the seed of black eyed peas were sold out, we grew iron clay cowpeas, oats and dent corn variety called Rebellion. We chose Rebellion because of its resistance to GMO-varieties cross-pollination. 

Our first planting of oats was in fall 2022 instead of spring 2022. We were expecting our partners to prepare and no-till drill the seeds in spring 2022. Unfortunately, both contractors experienced their own hardships and thus were unable to support us and meet the expectations we agreed upon. As a result, we had to purchase the seeding and cultivating equipment, borrow a walk-behind tractor to prepare and plant the fields and plant the seed. These limitations made it impossible for us to plant during the recommended window to allow enough time for growing days and “dry-down” for us to gather a harvest. 

Positive changes included doing an ad hoc seeder trial with the Black Butterfly trainees comparing the use and efficacy of a Jang seeder versus an Earthway seeder when seeding the corn and cowpeas. From that experiment, we decided to use the Jang seeder as our preferred technology for seeding the rest of our experiment plots. 

Participation Summary
15 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

4 Consultations
2 On-farm demonstrations
3 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
10 Other educational activities: 10. We provided weekly training to our trainees and apprentices throughout the life cycle of our planting from August-October

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
3 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

We provided 30 hours of educational training to the 2022 Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy cohort and public including being published in the Farm Alliance’s newsletter, public events on the farm, and presenting at the Black Urban Growers conference and the 11th Annual National FIELD School conference.

We offered a public event in collaboration with the University of MD Extension Farmer Field School. During this workshop, we explained and shared our research including our data collection methods, expenses, and challenges.We provided training to volunteer participants on how to use Earthway and Jang seeders. 

During our annual garlic planting, we provided two tours to community members.

Production Technician explaining challenge of using Earthway seeder on rocky soilExplaining the life cycle of cornExplaining Trap Crap of Oats and Beans as a Deer Deterrent in another fieldExplaining seed selection and application

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:


  • how to conduct farm research and collect data
  • how to grow small grains and dried beans
  • how to plant oats and or legumes using mechanized tools for cultivating and planting


Plot 1 first planting germination of corn
Plot 1 first planting germination of corn
Plot 2 planting of corn and beans- 8/27/22
Plot2 planting of corn and beans
Plot 3: Corn grown 8/27 at first planting
Plot 3: Corn grown 8/27 at first planting
Plot 4: corn and beans germinating intercropped
Plot 4: corn and beans germinating intercropped



Project Outcomes

5 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

Our project was designed to demonstrate what can be achieved on a quarter acre (10,000 sq ft) plot in an urban agriculture setting. The trainees of the Black Butterfly Urban Farming Academy were instrumental in assisting us execute this project, including cost, labor and data collection. They expressed an interest in farming for research and growing high caloric food. This project also has changed our thinking about production methods and shifted us to exploring the practice of growing storage and bulk crops that have a longer shelf life. Often, farmers are stressed about direct market outlets with highly perishable produce. This project has allowed us to take our time and build a field where soil health, conservation and yields are prioritized simultaneously.


Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

This project encouraged us to plan for risks and foreseeable challenges as most farmers do. However, the challenge was planning for risks and challenges for a crop none of the team were familiar with.  This project is our first research project at the Black  Butterfly Farm. We were unable to fully execute our plan over the season because of a lack of equipment and difficult timing. We revised our methodology by tracking growth in the corn and the health of the soil, recognizing that we were not necessarily going to have a corn or bean harvest. This change in methodology inspired us to problem solve around how to capture relevant data for our hypothesis. 

Our key challenges were an inability to complete field prep including having access with mechanized equipment, there were scheduling conflicts with the contractors and our seed was planted too late in the year. Due to the aforementioned challenges and the threat of the season’s first frost, we were unable to address our hypothesis around the profitability of small grains and legumes. We did not harvest legumes or corn. They did not reach full maturity. 

 Our two key successes were using new seeder technology and experimenting with research on our teaching farm. Additionally, we had a soil coaching session with our local Natural Resources Conservation Service agent that informed us of how to improve and maintain our soil health. We also had  advisory calls with our technical advisor and Extension agent, Marcus Williams. on data points to record, such as the stages of the plant. Learning about the life cycle of the plants informed the data we collect and observe. 

 At the conclusion of this year of the project,  and with the advice of  the technical advisor and soil agronomist, we were informed that our soil pH needs to be amended to create optimal growing conditions for the desired crop.

We will continue with our project goals and modify our project’s procedures in 2023 by having our equipment and infrastructure prior to planting, seeding an “easy kill” cover crop in the spring for Plots A and B, raise our soil’s pH by adding compost and organic lime-based amendments in liquid form, solarize and cultivate fields to mitigate weed pressure. We will expand our experiment this upcoming season with different types of legumes and grains over the duration of this project including using heirloom varieties of corn and peanuts.

Additional work includes seeking advice from grain and legume  farmers in the Mid-Atlantic (USDA Plant Hardiness Agricultural Zone 7A) and formalizing our data collection template that is easily accessible digitally. 

Our project results would be most beneficial to urban farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and refugee farmers. 


Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.