'Oh, bok choy': Farming for new tastes High-income crops promoted to help Howard agriculture

August 17, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Maybe it's his Vuarnet sunglasses, but everywhere Philip Gottwals looks in western Howard County he imagines fields of bok choy, gardens of ginseng, rows of wine grapes ripening in the summer sun.

He sees local farmers -- something of an endangered species as suburbia rolls relentlessly west -- cashing in on Howard County's most reliable crop: yuppies.

"This is truly a land of opportunity," Gottwals says from behind the wheel of his pickup truck equipped with a cellular phone. "But we've got to get people thinking high-value agriculture because we're running out of acreage."

Gottwals, hired this summer, is Howard County's first agricultural marketing specialist. His job is to help farmers adapt at a time when their traditional staples, such as dairy, grain and feed corn, seem locked in irreversible decline -- victims of the region's rapid suburbanization.

His degree is in economics, his training in marketing. But above all, Gottwals is a salesman, peddling an approach to farming that starts by studying consumer demand, then focuses production on the most profitable crops.

Organic vegetables -- because of the demand of affluent, health-conscious consumers in places such as Columbia -- can earn nearly $4,000 an acre, he says; corn or soybeans earn $150 an acre. The medicinal herb ginseng can earn $12,500 an acre and organic garlic $18,000 an acre.

Nonetheless, Gottwals has his critics.

"When's the last time you ate bok choy?" asks Chuck Sharp, a western Howard corn farmer who has seen crops get hot, peak, then lose value in just a few years. "People don't eat bok choy."

But all over the county, hobbyists and full-time farmers are following Gottwals' lead.

"I'm a suit," says Joseph R. Blouin, a 43-year-old insurance broker turned part-time farmer. "Once you get into [farming], it has an appeal that's opposite your lifestyle."

After spending most of his life in the Washington area, Blouin moved to a lavish home in the middle of a 14-acre lot in Glenelg. He loved the location -- until he got a lawn-mowing bill for $265.

Now he dreams of building a barn for a couple of horses -- one for each daughter -- and planting fields of organic alfalfa and hay. He also hopes to begin experimenting with a garden of medicinal herbs, organic garlic and chives.

"You don't get rich farming a small piece," says Blouin, who is shopping around for a red tractor, "but you can pay your taxes with it if you do it right."

Profit margin cut

The full-time farmers -- who have generations of wariness bred into their souls -- are a tougher sell. If some new-fangled crop gets wiped out by weather, or if there is a sudden bok choy glut, they still have to support their families.

In 1988, Chuck Sharp says, he grew 110,000 dozen of sweet corn. This summer, he grew only 23,000 dozen. He says other farmers, including hobbyists such as Blouin, have cut his profit margin.

"If I started growing brussels sprouts, and they were successful, in three years somebody else would be growing brussels sprouts," Sharp says.

In retreat

In Howard County, which features a plow and a sheaf of wheat on its official seal, traditional farming has been in retreat since just after World War II, when the first generation of Americans started pouring out of Baltimore to create the suburbs.

Since then, the amount of county farmland has declined from 122,000 acres to 44,000 acres. The number of dairy farms has dropped from 694 to about 10.

The county has an aggressive farmland preservation program that has set aside 16,000 acres in permanent easements since 1978. But to drive through western Howard County is to see corn fields and cattle pastures two centuries old give way to $400,000 homes with enormous lawns.

County farmers say that as the county developed, feed stores disappeared, traffic on rural highways became dangerously fast and fertilizer began offending sensitive suburban noses.

More complaints

"It's hard to farm on the edge," says Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm, a successful pick-your-own farm and market in the western Howard community of Woodbine. "Every time a housing development goes up, I have a shot at more customers. And I have a shot at more problems, more complaints."

The lesson of Larriland -- which relied on traditional crops before experimenting with strawberries in 1973 -- is that smart, market-skilled farmers can turn development to their advantage.

"If you're not keeping up with them," Gottwals counsels county farmers, "you're going to lose out."

Ideal for experiments

He doesn't need to tell that to James and Linda Brown. Until 10 years ago, they had a dairy farm in Glenelg. Now they raise dozens of crops -- including collard greens, cut flowers and pumpkins -- to sell at area farmers markets. In December, they sell Christmas trees.

And Linda Brown, who has dabbled in exotic crops such as Indian cucumbers, French breakfast radishes and Chinese cabbage, has learned that the two farmers' markets in Columbia are ideal places to sell her experiments.

"It's surprising," she says, smiling at the memory, "when people come up and say, 'Oh, bok choy!' "

Pub Date: 8/17/96

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