Extension chief works to help Carroll farmers Agriculture becomes more of a business

November 23, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

David L. Greene has watched family farms turn into large business operations and helped farmers adjust to changes in his 25 years with the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service.

Greene, 55, director of the Westminster-based service, marked his quarter-century recently by reflecting on the past and looking to the future, confident that agriculture will remain a viable industry in Carroll County.

Farms have dwindled in number but increased in acreage since Greene joined the extension service -- a public agency that acts as a resource for the agricultural community -- as an agent in 1972.

"Farming is more of a business, like running a gas station or doughnut shop," said Greene, who lives in a 200-year-old home and runs a sheep farm near White Hall.

"Years ago, old farms produced everything and there was a variety of livestock. Now, we have moved away from general subsistence farms to specialized operations."

Under his guidance, the extension office has helped longtime and new farmers through the transition, offering business management training, technical information and classes in all things agricultural.

"The extension office provides ongoing classes for farmers and speakers with in-depth information on everything from financial analysis to pest management," said Lawrence E. Meeks, who runs a 3,100-acre crop farm in Silver Run. "Dave Greene has been a major part of all that and a real asset to the farming community."

Recently, Meeks built a large barn addition. Greene's advice on framing, concrete and ventilation meant that "the building serves the purpose it was intended to," Meeks said. "He is good to work with, analytical and level-headed."

Franklin Feeser, a Taneytown hog farmer, has known Greene for three decades, and has found him helpful. Feeser consulted Greene recently on crop decisions.

"His help goes beyond the job," Feeser said. "He wants everybody to succeed."

The vagaries of agriculture, which is still Maryland's top revenue-producing industry, have widespread economic repercussions, Feeser said. In Carroll, farming was once "by the seat of the pants with neighbors' help, but now is business-oriented and high-tech."

"David is like an old oak tree through all the changes," he said. "He never sways too far from the center."

Since moving from agent to extension director seven years ago, Greene spends more time in the office than on farms. His telephone rings constantly. He fends off complaints about weeds and water runoff, gives details on establishing a horse pasture and offers remedies for poultry problems. The average poultry operation involves about 125,000 birds.

No question is too trivial, and the answers can mean invaluable savings to a struggling business.

"Mostly we get crazy cooking calls and weird poultry illnesses that we can't diagnose over the phone," Greene said. "Then, there's the stuff about exotic animals."

"Can you spray alfalfa with a herbicide?" one caller asks.

Before answering, Greene sends an agent out to identify the weed in the hayfield.

On another call, an agent discovered that wilted red maple leaves were poisoning horses.

The extension service is not a clearinghouse but a resource, he said. Its staff can find information on shiitake mushrooms, ginseng, emus, llamas, ostriches, bison and aquaculture -- all relatively new local operations that point to a transition from traditional farming.

"We are an agency that tells people where to go," Greene said. "We encourage questions. Instead of how-to, though, we teach management."

L The most enjoyable aspect of his job is working with people.

"In my time here, I have gone through one generation, am working with the next and encouraging their children through 4-H," he said. "They are some of the happiest people I know."

He is always ready to help newcomers. "You don't have to inherit a farm to get involved," he said. "You can start from scratch and make it a reality with a little luck and a lot of good management."

Like other small businesses, many new farms fail within the first five years, often when owners underestimate the knowledge and time required. Many take up agriculture with a Norman Rockwell vision of farm life. The ideal wears thin with the nonstop work, he said.

"People have a glorified idea of what it's like to work on a farm, but once they find out it's every day and no weekends off, it gets hard," Greene said. "Dairy is the worst -- others go through periods of intensity -- but you have to milk seven days a week."

Of course, anyone who started to farm this year plowed straight into the driest summer in three decades. The extension office reacted immediately with financial plans, alternative crops and measures to cope with long-range effects of the drought. Carroll, which has about 850 farms, has lost several to the drought and probably will lose more, Greene said.

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