A new crop of farmers

Interest: Residents in the suburbs are finding joys -- and a few hardships -- in rural life.

May 21, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

For two hours, Suzy Grissom listens to an engineer describe how to irrigate a field, delving into details on the width of plastic tubing and the amount of water needed to cover an acre.

By the end of the session, she's a little closer to her dream job.

"I think I want to be a farmer," said Grissom, one of about 20 students taking a class in Frederick on how to manage a small farm.

Like many in the class, Grissom has never lived on a farm. The only property she owns is a quarter-acre suburban lot where she, her husband and two children live in Ellicott City. But she dreams of the day when they can buy enough land to keep her horse and grow a few crops.

It is a dream found more frequently in the Baltimore-Washington area, where harried suburbanites long to leave their desk jobs and work on the land.

The Frederick County office of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension has been offering classes to these budding farmers since 1996, teaching the basics of managing pastures, testing soils, tending to animals and keeping records.

Anne Arundel County began offering a similar course this spring, and Harford and Howard counties will offer beginning farming programs this fall.

While suburban sprawl has eaten up many large farms in the area, extension agents are seeing growth in small, specialty operations -- many managed by owners with no farm experience.

Many of these landowners grew up in cities and subdivisions, but are attracted to the farm lifestyle. "I think I was born 150 years too late," said Grissom, who grew up in Reisterstown.

Although she has always loved gardening, her passion for farming began five years ago when she bought a horse and began riding it at the farm where it is stabled.

Grissom, who worked in corporate fitness until several years ago when she quit to take care of her young children, sees farming as an enterprise the family can enjoy. "I think it would be great for the children to be around things growing," she said.

Franz Stuppard doesn't live on a farm either, but the Columbia resident wants to learn techniques he can apply to a family farm.

A native of Haiti, Stuppard's farm experience is mostly limited to nine months he spent on two kibbutzim in the 1980s. In addition to taking classes from the cooperative extension service, he also volunteers at the historic Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock.

"I'm trying to absorb as much as I can," said Stuppard, a public utilities specialist for the General Services Administration.

These beginning farmers reflect a change in land values and ownership within central Maryland. Rising land costs have made it difficult for young farmers to obtain land and have pressed older farmers to sell to developers.

"It has been obvious for some time that the traditional farm as we know it is disappearing in this region," said Terry Poole, an extension agent who started the beginning farming classes in Frederick.

Howard County lost nearly 5,000 acres of farmland between 1992 and 1997. Today, the average size of a farm in the county is 128 acres -- less than the state average of 178 acres.

To survive, farmers in suburban counties need to find specialty products that can command prices that will pay for the expensive land, said Howard Extension Agent Caragh Fitzgerald.

Many landowners are turning from the grain crops that once dominated the region to products like organic vegetables, cut flowers or pick-your-own fruit and vegetable fields.

In Howard, almost half of the 233 farmers are part-timers.

Maryland Cooperative Extension has always provided agricultural education, but in the past, farmers wanted to know the latest techniques or scientific advancements in agriculture. Today, many of the people seeking help also must learn the basics.

"Now we have people who don't have a farm or even a garden, but they have an interest," Fitzgerald said. "For the beginning people it is more like, `How do I grow vegetables? When do I plant?' "

Jim Hanson and his wife, Liz Lavine, are among those learning the realities on a 21-acre parcel they purchased last year to stable horses.

Hanson, assistant director of the Maryland Cooperative Extension, was accustomed to advising farmers on how to care for their land, but farming his property has been a revelation, he said.

He and Lavine learned it is best not to dig post holes in the heat of summer and that leaving a hose on a water pump in December can cause the water line to freeze.

Neither grew up on a farm, but each had some experience with agriculture.

Lavine began riding horses as a teen and later worked at riding stables and racetracks.

Hanson visited his grandparents' farm and then studied agriculture in college before joining the extension service.

"There is a huge difference between knowing what to do and when you have to do it," said Lavine, who is a real estate broker.

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