Plowing into a new life

Change: A sonographer hears the call of the land and gives up his career and its stresses for farming, as a complete novice.

September 02, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Ghassan Neshawat could have kept a well-paying job as a medical sonographer and enjoyed his 17-acre property after hours. He could have sold the land and retired early. But he decided to try the hardest, sweatiest, buggiest option.

He quit the job to farm full time.

It's an unexpected career move in a state where many experienced farmers have opted out, either selling their land or taking a different job to pay the bills. Neshawat -- a 40-year-old father of four who lives in western Howard County -- didn't even have a background in farming to draw on. He's now immersed in a world of late-night study sessions on the subject of agriculture and occasional heartbreaks caused by trial and error.

Here and there in Maryland, untracked, other former urban or suburban residents are trying the most traditional of professions, too. A handful of counties, sensing untapped interest, have begun offering "Farming 101" courses.

"I've had 483 people run through the program," said Terry Poole, a Maryland Cooperative Extension agent in Frederick County who started offering an intensive introduction to farming series five years ago. "These people have had little to no farming experience. ... They're just regular nonfarm people, like doctors, lawyers, mechanics.

"They're looking at it as a lifestyle change."

Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, isn't surprised that some people want to get back to the land, even though they never had any ties to it before. Farming has not lost its hold on the United States, he said.

"It's very strong in the American psyche," he said. "It goes back to the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer."

But Evans cautions against romanticizing the work. It's not an easy way to make a living. He estimates that seven out of 10 people nationwide who try farming fail within five years.

Neshawat -- knee-deep in his first farming season -- is trying to make sure he will end up one of the successes.

"I'm a stubborn guy," he said. "Most people didn't even think I was going to get this far."

Born in Jordan, he immigrated to the United States as a child, and for nearly all his life he has lived with little land to his name, gardening in small spaces. Four years ago, his family moved from Silver Spring to the Glenwood countryside.

He said developers approached him almost immediately to try to buy the property until he finally signed a contract with one for $1.2 million last summer.

But then Neshawat heard about a local farming course. He signed up.

His mind was made up

When the development contract lapsed in December because a time clause had kicked in, Neshawat said, his mind was made up. He would grow crops instead of houses. And he wouldn't be just a weekend farmer, either.

"I got stressed out at work, and I wanted to spend more time with my family," he said. "I was missing out on a lot of things."

In May, he stepped down from his position as chief medical sonographer (a person trained to administer ultrasound tests) for the Cardio Vascular Center in La Plata, shocking his boss, owner Abdul Fadul.

"You know what I said to him?" Fadul asked. "I said, `You go [in] your car to Ocean City, you see on both sides the farmers. ... They do not make money. How can you make money?'"

But Neshawat would not be swayed. He left the 10- and 12-hour days indoors at nursing homes and doctors' offices to spend about the same amount of time outside with soil and seedlings. His wife, Taghrid, took off a month from her part-time job at Giant Food in River Hill to help with the early plantings.

Preparing the land

The switch has not been simple, they acknowledged during a brief break in their living room, which is scattered with magazines and reference books on topics from herbs to insects. They know that years of backyard gardening do not a farmer make.

Neshawat started preparing the land with a small garden tiller, but that method took a week to finish one row -- and he needed to get through 3 acres. He had to buy a tractor, a plow and discs that break up the soil after plowing. (Total cost: just less than $3,000 for the used equipment.)

First, the tomato seedlings went in at the end of May. Then two rows of green peppers and one row of cucumbers -- which is when the real trouble started.

Bugs. A snowstorm of bugs out of nowhere.

Nothing like that happened in the days when he grew a handful of fruit trees. "When you have a hundred plants, the aroma is probably just too much," he figured.

Neshawat caught a few invaders, consulted his insect book and determined that some were Colorado potato beetles -- even though he wasn't growing any potatoes -- and some were cucumber beetles.

He couldn't even have the satisfaction of spraying them because he is attempting to farm organically.

"What have I gotten myself into?" he asked his wife, who wondered whether organic gardening was such a good idea after all.

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