Agriculture inside the Beltway Farmer: John Sippel was born in this farmhouse, he has earned his living from this ground, and he has no intention of selling.

August 23, 1998|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

Tucked between closely built houses and the Baltimore Beltway, 1 1/2 miles from the city limits, is a most implausible thing:

A 17-acre working farm.

Every day, to the tune of roaring cars, farmer John Sippel tends to the vegetables and flowers that represent his sole income. Although the Fullerton property could sell for half a million dollars -- far more than it yields in crops -- he refuses to even consider letting it go.

"As long as I'm living, I'm not going to sell the farm," says Sippel, 60, a fourth-generation farmer who sleeps in the bedroom in which he was born. "People come around all the time, wanting to buy the farm; I don't even talk to them."

All around him, however, others are making different decisions. Farmland in Baltimore County disappears every year -- 15,784 acres were lost from 1982 to 1992, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

And Sippel is almost the last farmer left inside Interstate 695. As far as Maryland Farm Bureau President Stephen Weber knows, only one other working farm lies within the Beltway -- a 6-acre peach farm in Pikesville owned by the Pahl family.

But Sippel's situation is not entirely unusual. Approximately 25 percent of U.S. farms are located in areas classified as metropolitan, Weber says.

"There's a lot of little places like John's, and they're an important part of agri- culture," says Weber, who -- with 14 1/2 acres just outside the Beltway -- owns a metropolitan farm himself.

"There's farms where you don't expect to find them," Weber says. "They're just guys who stick in -- they don't want to sell. Their return on investment [in farming] is nothing compared to what the land is worth, but they choose to stay."

"A lot of agriculture is not about profit," he says. "It's about lifestyle."

First-time visitors driving to the family's rolling land, just two minutes from busy Belair Road, often don't believe it exists until they see the "Sippel Farm" sign and tractor-shaped mailbox.

Located in a tightly developed county neighborhood, the farm is obscured on two sides by red brick, semidetached homes constructed in the 1950s on property the Sippels once owned.

On the farm's south border is Linover Park.

To the northeast is the Beltway -- which was built through the Sippels' land in the 1960s, forcing them to sell several acres cut off by the road.

"We're really boxed in," says Donna Sippel, John Sippel's wife of 36 years and manager of the farm's finances.

But when John Sippel's great-grandfather bought the Fullerton land more than a century ago, the area was rural and development only a far-off dream. The family owned 91 acres. Until Sippel was a teen-ager, the only difference between Fullerton and the Midwest was the hills.

"It was real country," he recalls. "No noise, no people. It was all farming ground."

Even now, with all the trappings of development around it, the farm looks much as it did when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and 6-year-old John Sippel began doing odd jobs on the land.

Clothes dry on a line near the 85-year-old green-and-white farmhouse, which still has its original oak wood, stained-glass windows and old-time charm. The back door is always open for guests. Outside is a porch with rocking chairs for sitting and chatting, and Nellie, the family's black goat, often grazes nearby.

On one side, kale and tomato fields dot the land. On the other side sit antique tractors -- Sippel's hobby -- that date to the 1930s.

The farming lifestyle hasn't changed much since John Sippel grew up.

Every day from 7: 30 a.m. until dark, with only a few breaks for food, the 6-foot-6 farmer is out in the fields. Plowing. Planting. Spraying. Harvesting.

When he took over his father's share of the farm almost 40 years ago, the land was co-owned by his two brothers, Fred and Louis. But Fred died in 1991 and 71-year-old Louis has arthritis, so John does most of the heavy work.

Altogether, he farms 125 acres, including parcels of land he rents to compensate for the property sold by his ancestors. Several times a week he pulls 22-hour days to make deliveries to the Baltimore Wholesale Market and supermarkets in the area.

It is not, he says with a laugh, much of a retirement.

He keeps doing it -- keeps refusing to sell the land and really retire -- because he's always been a farmer. Because he can't imagine doing anything else. Because he loves his farm.

But tending the fields is not as good a way to make a living as it was when his great-grandfather became the first Sippel to farm, or when his father used a horse and cart to make produce deliveries. Sippel has seen the prices on crops fluctuate so much that his family can't even predict his annual income.

And so he made a decision.

"My son, he used to help me on the farm, but I told him not to do it -- the business is not good anymore," Sippel says.

"It's hard to make a living on a farm. It's supply and demand. When everybody has something, it's cheap.

"I told him, there's got to be an easier way to make money."

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