Backbone Farm Keeps Traditional Ways Alive

  • Backbone Food Farm in Pleasant Valley outside Oakland, Maryland, on the edge of the Allegheny Mountains. Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

by Jesse Wright | West Virginia Public Broadcasting

June 12, 2015

Even if Backbone Food Farm didn’t sit below Backbone Mountain, its name would still be appropriate. That’s because Max Dubansky and his family farm the way he learned from the old folks, letting pigs turn the soil and using horses to work the land.

“Being high elevation where we are here, we like to grow a lot of cool-weather crops," Max says from their 50-acre farm on the edge of the Allegheny Mountains. The farm also produces several kinds of edible and medicinal mushrooms, along with berries and fruit.

Max inherited his love of growing vegetables from his father. His parents moved to Garrett County, Maryland from Baltimore in the 1970s so he could grow a large garden. But Max says it wasn’t until he left high school that he became interested in farming as a profession. He started by caretaking a farm in the area—learning the trade mostly through trial and error.

“The biggest asset for me was the old people,” Max says. “The last of the true old-timers were still around. And I learned an infinite amount from just hanging out with those guys about farming in general and working horses and making it on a farm without much. And so I give those old people a lot of credit for where we are today.”

In following those old traditions, animals have become an integral part of the farm.

Max Dubansky of Backbone Farm. Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

Max Dubansky of Backbone Farm. Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

“By having animals, that definitely helps keep everything in a balance," Max's wife, Katherine, says. "I feel like, you know, a farm isn’t really a farm until you have animals." The couple began caretaking Backbone Food Farm 16 years ago and bought it outright in 2013. Max says when they took it over, many of the farm’s fields were over-worked and depleted of nutrients.

“The pigs have just been amazing as far as using their natural inclination to root. We’ve been able to plow large amounts of ground with them,” he says.

The pigs on the farm are a heritage breed. Aptly named Large Black Hog, they have black skin and hair, and they’re adapted to living outside.

“There’s only, like, 800 of these pigs in the entire country, so we’re kind of trying to get the stock back up,” Max says.

When the weather warms up, the pigs are moved into their summer pasture.

“Pig manure is really powerful stuff. And just aerating the soil up there where they are, we’ve noticed dramatic improvements in our pastures—like with our grass and clover growth,” Max says.

Backbone Food Farm. Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

Backbone Food Farm. Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

Backbone stands out in the surrounding community of small growers because the farm uses draft horses to do most of the work instead of tractors.

“Once the land is plowed, it’s all horse work. We do all the cultivating, all the bed-forming with horses,” he says.

Tractors are used sometimes, especially when time is short. But Max says he feels using a tractor disconnects him from the process of working the land.

“You can’t hear the birds singing. You’re in a cab, you can’t feel the wind. With horses, it slows the work down,” he says.

He says working with horses also brings a spirit of cooperation.

“Me and the horses—we’re all the team that is working together and I have to pay attention constantly to how they are and how they’re feeling. And they’re constantly paying attention to me. So it adds this whole other dynamic to the work that I just really enjoy. It makes me feel more involved with what I’m doing.”

Not all the land at Backbone is farmed every year. Max has broken the land up into small patches, some of them grassy in appearance. He only grows vegetables every other year on each patch. Max says what looks like grass is actually a cover crop that’s used to return nutrients to the soil in the years between vegetable harvests.  

“This is rye and crimson clover, hairy vetch. There’s legumes in here, too, which fix nitrogen from the air. So we’re collecting free nitrogen,” Max says.

Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

Photo: Jesse Wright (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

Max rips a handful of leafy rye from the field, exposing the roots and soil beneath.

“You can see that little white ball right there,” he says, pointing out a white sphere about twice the size of a pinhead attached to a root. “That’s actually a nitrogen nodule that the leaves have taken the nitrogen out of the air and fixed it to the root. Then when you plow that in, it rots in and makes it available to other plants,” Max says.

He says one advantage he has is lots of land. By using crop rotation and animals to work his fields, he can essentially grow his own fertilizer. Most of the waste that the animals produce is turned into fertilizer. That fertilizer is used to grow crops. In fact, just about everything the farm needs to grow crops is generated on the land.

Max’s wife, Katherine, says using that closed-loop system helps cut down on the amount of pollutants the farm generates.

“We like to see the whole cycle of fertility right here so that we don’t have to import fertilizers. There’s not a whole lot of extra waste that comes out that we have to find a place for it to go," she says.

On top of growing food for markets and restaurants in the area, Backbone also serves as a place to learn about small-scale, sustainable farming. Max and Katherine bring in two or three apprentices each year who stay on the farm for six months.

“It’s mostly younger people that are interested in farming and want to get an idea of what it actually takes to run a family farm,” he says.

Andi Hinnenkamp, who is interning on the farm, grew up in Kansas and went to college in Nebraska. The 23-year-old says she hopes to take what she learns during her time on the farm back to Kansas.

“I think that would be really cool, something that could sustain a life but also make a living,” she says.

Passing on knowledge is important at Backbone. Sitting around the kitchen table in his farmhouse, Max says he feels fortunate to have learned from the last of the old folks in the area who used traditional methods.

“I feel almost like I’m this bridge. You know, that I’m really lucky that I caught the tail end of that and can take it to these people in their 20s."

Jesse Wright is the Morgantown reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.