Goodbye, pumpkin patch Closing: For seven years, Stanley Dabkowski Jr. has leased space on Foster's Farm in Worthington Valley for a fall festival that was educational and fun for children and parents. This is the last one.

October 18, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

By the end of this month, as many as 7,000 schoolchildren will have taken hayrides through the pumpkin patch at Foster's Farm for an elementary lesson in farming.

Surrounded by the rolling pastures, grainfields and woods of the Worthington Valley in northern Baltimore County, they can pick a fuzzy soybean pod and peel it open, jump in a pile of straw and choose a pumpkin to take home. Weekends, they can come back with their parents and stuff a scarecrow.

"I was picking up a piece of corn that was on the ground," said Edward Parham, 12, a seventh-grader at Pikesville Middle School who came with his class last week. "I felt like I could feed it to a horse."

The sad news for many is that Foster's is closing to the public Oct. 31. The market and festivities are run by Stanley Dabkowski Jr., who leased the space from the Fosters.

"The decision to end the relationship with Stanley Dabkowski was a very difficult one for the family," said Whit Foster of Glyndon, grandnephew of owner Etelka Foster.

"Over the years, Stan has run a great fall festival that has been fun and educational for children and parents. Unfortunately, the fall festival has been so successful that the number of visitors on the farm interferes with other operations," Whit Foster said.

But while the pumpkin patch is closing, the farm will continue. Etelka Foster has placed the property in the Maryland Environmental Trust. A conservationist who loved the look of the valley where she grew up, she took steps to protect the family property from the development that creeps right up to it on Bonita Avenue.

The farm has a rich history, including the polo ponies boarded there in the Roaring '20s and the French sailors who worked the vegetable fields while waiting for their ships to be repaired during World War II.

Her husband's grandchildren and their relatives continue to live on the nearly 400 acres, and they jointly run the farm.

"I think it'sgreat that we can keep it in the family," Etelka Foster said. "It's marvelous."

But for Dabkowski, who started the festival seven years ago, the decision to close puts a lump in his throat. A suburban boy who dreamed of growing up to be a farmer, Dabkowski found a piece of heaven, and now he has to pack up and leave.

"My own place doesn't hold anything to this place," said %J Dabkowski, 43, who owns Spring Meadow Farm on Route 30 in Upperco. He has a market and petting zoo there and plans to move the field trips there, too. But it won't be the same as Foster's, he said.

The pretty view

Other farms in the Baltimore area offer field trips to pumpkin patches, but they don't have the view.

"There's no other place like this," he said. "I've never been to anyplace in this state that's this pretty."

Etelka Foster has been generous to him, he said.

"[They] let us feel like it's our farm," he said. "Us" is a cadre of paid and volunteer staff who drive the tractors pulling school groups, serve hot dogs and popcorn and sell pumpkins and gourds -- and sometimes retrieve people who get lost in the 8-foot-high corn maze.

Farmer Frank, who drives the groups on a tractor to pick pumpkins from the vines, is Frank Crouse, a retired printer. Farmer Bill, who sings "Old McDonald" as he drives a wagonload of hay and preschoolers past a cornfield, is Bill Cusick, a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. overhead worker.

They are friends of Stanley Dabkowski Sr., who also helps his son in the crush of fall, when some 2,000 people come out on a weekend day to stuff scarecrows, ride ponies or pet calves.

"This is just good family time," said Channing Patel, an accountant, after emerging from the maze with her 5-year-old son, Nathan. They live near the farm, but it was the first time they had visited.

"First and last time," she said.

While the farm operation appears seamless to the public, most of the crop acreage is leased to other farmers, just as the market area was leased to Dabkowski for his child-friendly, city-friendly peek into how crops grow.

Schools as diverse as St. Paul's in Brooklandville and John Ruhrah Elementary in Highlandtown send children to see where pumpkins come from. Nursing home residents come out, too -- their wheelchairs lifted onto the hay wagons.

"We'll have to find another one," said Stephanie Pullara, a teacher at the St. Paul's preschool, which visited Foster's this week. "It's a nice trip, and it's age-appropriate. They keep our attention."

The elder Dabkowski, a retired ink salesman who raised his family in the Beltway suburb of Carney, speaks with amusement about his son the farmer.

"When he was 10, 11 years old, we lived close to Weber's [Cider Mill] Farm," the senior Dabkowski said. "He used to go over there -- he'd walk about two miles -- and work with Steve Weber."

Out of high school, he worked at Baugher's Market in Westminster and raised pigs on a little farm the Baughers leased him. The pigs "used to follow him around like dogs," the senior Dabkowski said.

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