Staying Down On The Farm

September 30, 1990|By KATHY LALLY

On a hot Thursday afternoon, Eileen Shlagel drops a cucumber into a paper bag and adds 25 cents to her customer's bill, a simple enough act that requires the before-dawn-to-after-dusk labor of Eileen and her husband, Russell, their two oldest sons and Mr. Shlagel's parents, backed up by half-a-million dollars' worth of tractors, pickup trucks, combines, plastic mulch layers, plastic mulch removers, rakes, irrigation pipes and 200 acres of former tobacco land practically in the middle of Waldorf.

The Shlagels are farmers. They are part of the 3 percent of th American work force that feeds the other 97 percent. They farm land that Shlagels bought in 1918 as immigrants to Southern Maryland from Germany.

Russell Shlagel's father, George, has plowed the same fields in Waldorf every year for 58 years, in sickness and in health, in drought and in deluge, with horse and then with tractor. He is 70 now, and it will take death to part him from his land and the farmer's life.

George's father gave his life to the farm. When George was 12 his father was cutting down a tree, which hit him in the neck and killed him. That was Nov. 22, 1932. "Five weeks later, on Dec. 28, his mother died of overwork and a broken heart," Russell says. She left five children -- the oldest an 18-year-old girl -- to work the farm.

"You made it," Russell says. "Or you did whatever happened."

The Shlagels made it then. They made it through the Depression through boom and recession, and today, as life changes irrevocably for the Southern Maryland farmers who once grew tobacco, their gritty self-reliance is helping them make it once again. They are transforming a way of life to keep a way of life.

The task has fallen to Russell, one of three Shlagel sons. He wa the one who felt born to the life and never really wanted to do anything else, though he had to, and never wanted to live anywhere else, though he does. Russell worked in construction to earn his living when he first got out of high school -- his father wanted him to start off on his own career because the tobacco they grew then offered only limited prospects -- but evenings and weekends always found him on the farm, helping out because that's what he liked to do.

"It's freedom," 32-year-old Russell says. "It's being your ow boss, working with your family. I don't come home at the end of the day and see my kids. I see my kids all day long. I see my wife all day." Farming gives Russell the freedom to work seven days a week, get up at 5 a.m., rush to the fields without breakfast and begin picking and packing and loading and selling and planting and weeding as fast as he possibly can. He is his own boss, making do with whatever weather he gets and whatever prices the market decides to offer.

As a partner in the enterprise, Eileen washes clothes in the middle of the night -- so she can hang them up as dawn breaks -- takes care of the couple's five children, aged 4 months to 8 years, freezes or cans vegetables that aren't sold, cooks meals, picks and packs vegetables and spends three days a week selling them at farm markets. On a wet day when they're one raincoat short, she cuts a hole out of a Hefty bag and puts it over her head in the field. "Monday night is my vacation time," she says. "That's when I teach my Lamaze class." When things slow down in the winter, she returns to her regular job as a nurse at the local hospital.

Russell is the tanned farmer with powerful arms and shoulders, the farmer wearing jeans and Fink's Hybrid cap. Eileen is the farmer in Nike Airs and pink shorts, the former city girl who now can lift heavy crates with the best of them and who is back at work three weeks after having a baby. Together, they connect the past with the future.

"My grandfather bought that farm," Russell Shlagel says. "My grandfather and his two brothers. They came over in 1912 and bought it about 1918. They had a 400-acre tract. They worked it together, the three brothers. Then they split the one farm into three farms. The house that Daddy lives in right now they moved into when he was 2 years old."

Russell's mother, Myra, took up the work, too. "When they got married," Russell says, standing next to his 25-cent cucumbers, "they worked like fools so people could eat for free."

Russell's conversation is punctuated with references to people eating for free, a measure of the farmer's frustration at making huge investments, backed up by unrelenting work -- for which the payoff depends entirely on weather and market, both forces beyond his control.

The harassed suburbanite stops at the roadside stand and sees a cucumber, which usually appears magically on the grocery store shelf. "Is it fresh?" he demands. The farmer looks at the cucumber and sees sweat, risk and all his prospects. There is room for great misunderstanding and disappointment in their transactions.

"Americans eat cheaper and better than anyone else in the world," Russell says. "We're working hard so you can eat good."

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