A decade ago, the question, "Is it a good time to be a farmer?" would probably have been met with a laugh—unless you were the kind of farmer who owned 100 subdividable acres in a profitable area. The idealized notion of farm stands proffering lush tomatoes and spiky cukes, eggs gathered from hens squawking in a barnyard, and milk in glass bottles from cows milked that very morning is the stuff of storybooks.
But transportation costs are driving up produce prices in grocery stores, and concern for health and the environment are driving consumers to seek alternatives. David Smith of Springfield Farm in Sparks says his business has tripled since Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma came out in 2006. And Barbara Kingsolver's 2007 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle lent romance to the notion of eating locally, says Sara Colhoun, who operates a year-round CSA (community supported agriculture) operation in Anne Arundel County. "People are coming in with more information and a greater desire to understand the source of their food," she says.
There are more than 12,000 farms in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, with chickens and nursery and greenhouse farming comprising the largest sectors. Small farms are still only a fraction of Maryland's agriculture business, but their visibility is growing.
While once fleeing the family farm, today's farmers are returning to the land, Colhoun says. But instead of following in their father's footsteps, they are adopting new techniques—like Colhoun, whose farm is certified organic, and Trey Lewis, who raises buffalo in Monkton—or finding new outlets for their products, like Harford County farmer Kate Dallam's (pictured) ice-cream production at Broom's Bloom Dairy. John Sensenig is taking Locust Point Farm in Elkton in a new direction by raising chickens and beef. "There's a new frontier in farming, and that is selling directly to the public," he says. And for many consumers, that also means knowing the farmer who grew it. We'd like to introduce you to some.
Broom's Bloom Dairy
1700 S. Fountain Green Rd., Creswell, 410-399-2697.
On a late summer's eve, the line for ice-cream cones, sundaes, and splits at Bloom's Broom Dairy snakes from the door to the parking lot, which is filled with SUVs, European wagons, and high-end minivans. Kate Dallam is delighted. The ice cream, she says, "has made farming fun again."
Dallam and her husband, David, both come from families who have farmed for several generations in Harford County. Until about eight years ago, their income came from their 220-acre dairy farm, where they milked 70 cows and sold the milk to a local cooperative. But the fluctuating price of milk created constant anxiety, says Dallam. "There was so much uncertainty, all the fun went out of it."
Nevertheless, she was determined to succeed as a farmer. "My father always said the land has to pay for itself," she says. "If you just sit around and look at the views, you'll end up in the poorhouse."
Those charming vistas, of course, bring urban folk out to the country—to live, or just for a nice drive to an old-fashioned ice-cream shop on the edge of a cornfield.
Dallam says she knew there was a market for what her farm could produce, and it was just a matter of getting it right.
She would watch the cars backed up during morning rush hour, on their way to Interstate 95, from the farmhouse that had been in David's family since 1726. "I could see the drivers talking on their cell phones from my daughter's window," she recalls. "I thought, how can I figure out something to sell these people?"
Dallam started by making cheese and soap to sell at local farmers' markets. Dallam's brother, Worley, who had been raising lamb and beef with their father on nearby Woolsey Farm, got in on the farmers' markets, too—his wife, Cindi, now handles that part of the business.
As the farmers' market business flourished, Dallam's confidence and resolve also grew. She and her husband opened the ice-cream shop—which also serves sandwiches, soups, and salads—in 2004. She makes all the ice cream on site, with fresh cream from Baltimore's Cloverland Dairy. (The Dallams' milk is still sold to a co-op, but Kate says some of it probably ends up in the ice-cream mix.) It's flavored with local strawberries and peaches in season, or year-round, with whatever her whimsy decrees. While customers wait, they can browse the refrigerator cases for Woolsey Farm meats, Broom's Bloom cheese, or other products.
Her father, Dallam says, "is amazed." So impressed, in fact, that he has agreed to put the Woolsey farmland under a Harford County agricultural preservation easement program (where the land is protected from development), as the Dallams did for Broom's Bloom (the name dates to the original 17th-century land grant, when John Broom was given a parcel of farmland by the Church of England).
"We've found ways to make farming work," Dallam says. "And that means future generations can stay on the land."
Apple Walnut Pudding
2 farm-fresh eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat eggs and sugar until smooth.
Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Blend into sugar mixture.
Add apples, walnuts, and vanilla. Place in a well-greased 10-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. Bake for 35 minutes.
—Serve with ice cream.
Locust Point Farm
430 Locust Point Rd., Elkton, 443-309-2278.
Lifelong farmer John Sensenig is trading houses with his parents, who have lived in the farmhouse on Locust Point Farm since 1980, the year before Sensenig was born. Though it's a logical switch—the older Sensenigs are heading toward retirement, while John and his wife, Marilyn, need more space with their two children—there's also symbolism in the move. He is shifting the focus of the farm. He's not displacing his father's ways, but he's studying new techniques and looking at the marketplace to create a niche.
Sensenig, a Mennonite, completed his schooling in the 10th grade and went to work on the farm. But he's influenced as much by the books he's read—Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and works by Joel Salatin, whose farm in Swoope, VA, has become a model for "grass" farming—as he is by working alongside his dad, Glenn. The family farms about 300 acres, 80 of which they own. Sensenig began raising grass-fed beef six years ago, taking over 100 acres that his father had used for soybeans, corn, and wheat to sell wholesale. He also has a flock of free-range chickens, which provide both eggs and meat, sold at a small shop on the farm.
The hogs that were once the cornerstone of the operation are being phased out, Sensenig says. Raising hogs in confined quarters to be shipped off to a packing plant, he says, "is totally contradictory to my philosophy. As we make more of a living doing other things, we can back out of it."
The changes will most likely involve more processing—Sensenig and his father currently kill about 600 chickens a week, 225 or so from their own farm, the rest from other farms, including David Smith's Springfield Farm. Smith purchases Locust Farm chickens to sell along with his own poultry to Baltimore-area restaurants. During the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Locust Point processes about 7,000 turkeys.
He hopes to have USDA certification for processing by early winter. Someday, he'd like to add a slaughterhouse for beef. He also envisions an expanded shop on the farm. Sensenig says selling directly to the consumer is the way to go. "For years, my father grew corn and soybeans and raised hogs for someone else," he says. "These days, people want to eat local foods. Health is one thing, but there's also the question of burning all that fuel to get food here from California."
Crispy Baked Chicken
1/2 cup cornmeal
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine first six ingredients (cornmeal through pepper). Dip chicken in milk and roll in
Place in greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Drizzle with margarine or butter. Bake uncovered for
Ivy Brand CSA
Ivy Neck Farm, Harwood, email@example.com
Sara Colhoun's hands are a giveaway. They're thick and strong. Her long fingers look designed to gently uproot an onion for replanting or separate the leaves of a tomato plant in search of one ready for picking.
Colhoun, 33, is a 13th-generation farmer in Anne Arundel County, though, she concedes, only the ninth generation on this particular piece of land—the 120-acre Ivy Neck Farm. Because the property was frequently inherited by women, she says, "It's cool that it isn't always the same last name on the deed." Most of the surrounding farmland was owned by cousins—until recently, when the Smithsonian Institution bought several acres for an Environmental Research Center.
Colhoun's parents, John and Betty Colhoun, both computer scientists, grew hay and raised beef cattle to sell at auction, but didn't depend on farming for a livelihood. "My father never encouraged farming," says Colhoun. "My mother said you can be anything: a doctor or a lawyer."
Instead, Colhoun attended St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM, which has a program of independent study identical to its sibling school in Annapolis. She says she planned to pursue architecture, but didn't complete college, instead traveling, working, and, at one point, helping her brother, Allen, with a sustainable farming project at Evergreen State College in Washington. In 1998, she returned to Ivy Neck Farm.
Ivy Neck is certified organic, and Colhoun operates the year-round Ivy Brand CSA (community-supported agriculture) operation, distributing produce to about 129 members in the summer and around 30 in the winter months. The cold-weather members, says Colhoun, "get a lot of root vegetables," adding, "You have to like turnips."
Colhoun, a single mother with twin 5-year-old boys, tends to about five acres of the farm, while her brother raises beef on 60 acres of pastureland. They represent a trend among younger farmers in Maryland.
"A generation ago, farming was so disconnected," she says. "Farmers would raise corn and send it off to the silos." Consumers, too, she said, were removed from the sources of their food. "They'd just go to the grocery store," she says. Today's farmers, Colhoun believes, are closing the gap by getting to know their customers.
Along with practicing organic methods, Colhoun's greenhouses are off the power grid, getting energy from solar panels, which also supply her parents' nearby house. To be a farmer, she says, "You have to temper your expectations and have insane work habits. People aren't raised to work this hard anymore."
Ivy Brand Salad
Red amaranth, see note
Wash and dry greens. Place desired amount of greens on individual plates. Top with garlic chive blossoms and tomato wedges.
For vinaigrette, mix 1-2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, and salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. Slowly add 6-8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil until well blended. Drizzle greens with vinaigrette.
Notes: Amounts of greens vary, depending on the number of servings. Tomatoes pictured are not from Ivy Brand.
Chapel's Country Creamery
10380 Chapel Rd., Easton, 410-820-6647.
Holly Foster's success with Chapel's Country Creamery can be traced to her affection for a cow named Rainey—a Christmas gift from her husband Eric five years ago. "If my cow had kicked me, I might have given the whole thing up," says Foster with a laugh.
Instead, she went ahead and milked her cow to make cheese. "After I'd had her a while, I got pregnant with my fourth child," she recalls. "And Rainey got pregnant, too." The bond was sealed.
Foster had taken a few courses in cheese making and been experimenting in her kitchen, using milk from the grocery store. But she was concerned about the hormones and antibiotics found in commercial milk. So that's when she asked her husband for a cow. "I wanted more control over my product," she says.
The first cow led to more cows (currently more than 90). The Fosters built a milking parlor, and Holly, who was producing small batches of cheese for friends and family, began looking into ways to increase production. But plans were put on hold when Eric's parents' horse barn burned to the ground. "It wiped us out financially," Holly says. "There was no way to put in manufacturing equipment."
Foster got in touch with Henry Lapp, an Amish cheese maker in Wakefield, PA. "We clicked right away," she says. Along with traditional cheddars, Foster has developed variations such as flavoring cheddar cheese with garlic, chives, sun-dried tomatoes, and Old Bay seasoning. Foster has also been instrumental in moving forward a bill in the General Assembly to allow raw-milk cheese production in Maryland, and is involved in a pilot program to change the law (currently, it is illegal to sell raw milk in the state). "I couldn't believe it. I went from being a stay-at-home mom to sitting in Annapolis writing a bill," she says.
Production has doubled each year since Chapel's Country Creamery began in 2005, says Foster, who sells her cheese at farmers' markets and to restaurants and small retailers through distributors. Currently, the Creamery makes about 750 pounds of cheese a week, using 10,000 pounds of milk—from Rainey and friends.
Zucchini Squash Casserole
2 medium yellow squash, sliced
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Layer squash, zucchini, onion, and tomatoes in a 2-quart baking dish, coated with cooking spray, sprinkling cheese between layers and reserving some for the top.
Cover and bake for 1 hour or until vegetables are tender, or microwave for 20 to 30 minutes.
Note: 1/2 pound of other cheeses can be substituted.
Gunpowder Bison & Trading Co.
1270 Monkton Rd., Monkton, 410-343-2277.
Trey Lewis knew he wanted to do something with the family property. He grew up on 75 pristine acres in Monkton, the son of a self-employed financial planner, but he still considered himself a "country boy." After two years studying agriculture business at Delaware Valley College and a stint at Baltimore International College taking culinary classes, he began to research ways to use his family's land.
His father, Chip, had been renting acreage to corn and soybean farmers. Lewis knew that his only hope of getting use of the property was a solid business plan, so he began researching animals. "I knew I didn't want to do anything mainstream like cows or horses," he says. "I looked into ostriches, emus, and llamas. I thought bucking bulls were cool, but there's no money in that."
Bison also appealed to Lewis: "They're really strong"—a full-grown bull can weigh up to 2,500 pounds. "And they're a wild animal. You can't go up and smack them on the butt." They are also low maintenance—they live on pastureland, mate, and give birth without any help from human handlers.
Lewis visited bison ranches, hired a consultant, and presented a business plan to his father, who signed off on the idea. He started in 2004 with eight bison, seven cows, and a bull. Now his herd numbers 50, and he butchers about eight bison each month. At two years of age and around 1,400 pounds at slaughter, a bison yields about 400 pounds of meat—steaks, roasts, and burgers—which Lewis and his wife, Angela, sell to local restaurants including Padonia Station, Woodberry Kitchen, and Corks. They have a retail shop on the first floor of a converted barn, which also serves as their home.
Lewis supplements his animals' fescue-and-clover diet with shelled yellow corn to add marbeling. He raises them without hormones, antibiotics, or feed additives.
Lewis says awareness of bison has grown quickly. "People used to say, 'What's bee-zon?'" he says with a laugh. He credits the local food movement with making his job marketing the product easier. "When I was in chef's training, they drilled into your head, 'Buy cheap, buy cheap.' But that's not what's going on today. People are looking for healthy, natural food, and they're willing to pay for it."
Gunpowder Bison Meatloaf
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a skillet over medium heat, melt butter and sauté garlic, onion, celery, thyme, salt, and pepper until tender. Remove from heat and cool. In a bowl, beat eggs and add milk and bread crumbs. Add ground bison to the vegetable mixture, mix well. Add bread-crumb mixture, mix well. Divide in half and press into two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Cover with aluminum foil and poke holes to vent. Bake for 60 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 10.
Note: To make sauce, combine 1 cup ketchup, 1 teaspoon liquid smoke, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/2 cup brown sugar.
Sauce can be added to the top of the meatloaf halfway through baking or after slicing it.