2 farmers in their 80s still work land Cultivating a love for the soil

July 21, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

FREDERICK -- Chris Schmitt feels guilty. He's landed in the hospital four times since November, leaving his partner Harry Kemp to farm their 10 acres abounding with fruits and vegetables.

Theirs is a partnership, if not made in heaven then surely %J conceived in the rich earth underfoot. The two neighbors on a forested hillside near Gambrill State Park just west of Frederick have farmed together nearly 20 years.

They were in their 60s when they started. That Mr. Kemp is now 82 is incidental. His back is strong. He tends the fields with the quiet dignity of a man whose soul is rooted in the soil.

But age takes swipes at Mr. Schmitt. He is 87. His pelvis was broken in a car wreck in November. Two days later he suffered a stroke. Then he underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate in February. Earlier this month he was forced back into the hospital with pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

How soon was he back in the fields after being released?

"Next day," Mr. Schmitt says.

He and Mr. Kemp don't cultivate flowery speech, but they planted rows of 1,000 tomato plants and 6,500 onion plants this spring. They've begun harvesting the first of their 1,400 pounds of potatoes.

They do everything by hand -- till, fertilize, plant, weed, spray, harvest, even chop wood.

And they grow strawberries,raspberries, squash, pumpkins, broccoli, sweet corn, cabbage, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, beans, peas, peppers, okra, beets, kale, turnips, peaches, apples and grapes -- usually varieties of each.

"We don't make a lot of money," Mr. Schmitt says. "But we get a lot of exercise."

They sell to local nursing homes and a grocery store, at a nearby housing development and from a stand at Mr. Kemp's farm. The stand is self-service and works by the honor system.

It is a very informal stand. If you don't have the money, just leave an IOU -- that is, if you can find the stand. You can't see it from

the road. There's no sign.

Turn into Mr. Kemp's driveway on Shookstown Road -- marked by the numbers 5339 on plywood on a tree -- and meander a quarter-mile through the woods. An old stone house appears. Beyond the house in the shade is the stand.

Breathe the cool, sweet air. Gaze upon the pond attired regally in water lilies.

"It's a lot like a Shangri-La in the middle of chaos," says Mr. Kemp's daughter, Tobi Hosie, who grew up here and lives in nearby Walkersville.

Ms. Hosie, a 57-year-old nurse, her brother and Mr. Schmitt's son help occasionally with the crops. But the two farmers carry the load.

"You would think they'd be cutting back, but it seems to continue to grow," Ms. Hosie says. "The secret of it is that both of them continue plodding along and doing what they can every day."

It was Mr. Schmitt who in 1976 raised the subject of farming together. He had retired after working 25 years at Fort Detrick as an accomplished plant pathologist studying plant diseases.

At home he nurtured a garden of about one acre. Longing for more land when he retired, he approached his neighbor.

Mr. Kemp owns nearly 50 acres. His wife had died three years earlier, and their four children were grown. He agreed to the partnership.

Until then he had worked the fields alone. The son of deaf parents, he spent his early years on their farm isolated from the speaking community, his daughter says. He grew into a strong, quiet man bound to the land.

"He would come from work late in the morning, or at noon, and then in the evening, and he would walk around the fields," says Ms. Hosie. "We always said the plants were intimidated by his constant surveillance. They would have to grow with this silent person watching over them."

Mr. Kemp still goes to the office in the morning. Even at 82 he is vice president of Meadows Van and Storage, the moving company he started with his brother-in-law in 1946.

For the past 18 years the farmers have followed this routine: Mr. Kemp leaves for the office about 5:45 a.m. Mr. Schmitt arrives at the farm and starts working about 9 a.m. Mr. Kemp returns about 11 a.m. They work until 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. when Mr. Schmitt drives home to his wife. Mr. Kemp keeps working.

"There aren't many people who can do what he does," Mr. Schmitt says, nodding toward Mr. Kemp. "Get up at 5 in the morning and work all day 'til dark."

"Well, 'til dusk anyway," Mr. Kemp says. "Most people don't see how we do it. But we do do it."

"And we do enjoy doing it," Mr. Schmitt says. "We don't look upon it as a hardship."

The routine was disrupted by Mr. Schmitt's ailments. He clearly hated every minute confined. That's why the day after they let him out he showed up at the farm to stand at Mr. Kemp's side.

"My son called the doctor and asked if I was supposed to be taking it easy," Mr. Schmitt says. "He said I was. So my son's been on my back about being out here."

His son, John Schmitt, a 44-year-old computer salesman from Chevy Chase, says he just wishes his father would slow a little.

So Mr. Schmitt, cane in one hand and water jug in the other, climbs onto the back of Mr. Kemp's old tractor. Mr. Kemp fires it up and heads it down the path between the fruit trees.

The tractor bounces along, and the two old farmers in their straw hats hold on for one more trip into the fields.

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