Fresh from the farm

Turkey: Every holiday season, thousands of customers gobble up the big birds sold at Maple Lawn Farms in Howard County.

November 22, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

At Maple Lawn Farms, customers stream past turkeys gobbling in barns, on their way to buy freshly slaughtered birds that will wind up on dinner tables today for Thanksgiving.

Thousands of customers were estimated to have flocked through the Fulton farm's processing plant before Thanksgiving, some waiting in line for a half-hour at one of the state's few turkey farms selling directly to consumers. It eventually will close because of development.

The farm expects to sell about 20,000 turkeys through Christmas - but most of them for Thanksgiving.

"People want high-quality food items," said Kathy Iager, one of the family members who owns the farm. "It's very hard to get any fresh meat produce in this day and age because of the mass quantities that are produced."

That's why Tvong Chu of Glenelg waited in a long line to buy his first turkey from the farm, anticipating that the fresh taste will be better than that of store-bought birds.

"It's fresh, straight from the farm," said Chu, 68. "We get the best for our money."

Many of the customers this week were served by B.J. Radhe, 19, of nearby Fulton. A student at Appalachian State College in Boone, N.C., he has been helping out at the turkey farm since about the age of 12.

He said he often puts in 12-hour days handling the fresh-killed birds. "I love working here because I enjoy helping our customers have a good holiday," Radhe said.

Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, estimated that the number of Maryland turkey farms selling directly to consumers has dwindled to five. But he said other types of direct marketing farms are increasing. The number of farmers markets has tripled in the state during the past decade, from 21 in 1990 to 66 this year, he said.

Evans said such farms appeal to customers by creating a personal relationship with the farmer, enabling consumers to ask questions about how the food is grown or to get cooking tips. The benefit for farmers is a higher profit by cutting out the middleman.

"Buying today is very impersonal," Evans said. "Direct marketing in agriculture is going in the exact opposite direction of that, and that is our strength."

Iager said sales dropped slightly last year at Maple Lawn Farms after word spread that the 507-acre property will be developed into a town designed for 3,000 residents and as many as 4,000 workers, with groundbreaking scheduled for next year.

Customers were unsure whether the farm was open, but Iager said people now know the farm is operating. The development project is expected to be completed in about 12 years.

"We plan on being here as long as we can farm," Iager said.

Neil Christopher and Trish McQuestion of Gaithersburg, customers for two years, bought a 25-pound turkey and 10 pounds of giblets to make gravy yesterday.

"We enjoy supporting a family-owned business and are saddened that so many of them are disappearing," Christopher said.

Maple Lawn Farms has been selling turkeys for 64 years, drawing thousands of customers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. Purchased by the Iager family in 1839, the farm is in its fifth generation, also producing dairy cattle and field crops.

The turkeys are raised on the farm but gathered from other parts of the country.

At the farm, the turkeys stay in large barns and are monitored by a nutritionist. By the time the turkeys are sold, they range from 12 to 50 pounds.

Marla Moore of Silver Spring has been going to the farm for more than 15 years, ever since she bought a turkey from a meat market that tasted like fish. She suspected that was caused by fish meal fed to the turkey. "It's all part of the tradition of Thanksgiving and Christmas to come out here," said Moore, 60. "[The turkey] is great. Every year, it's perfect."

Another popular Howard farm also might close soon, this one because of the owner's health. Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge makes 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of apple cider and at least 5,000 pies from September through November, selling about 1,000 pies for Thanksgiving.

Since owner Tom Owens suffered a cerebral hemorrhage last year, putting him in a nursing home, the farm's future has been uncertain, said Cheryl Nodar, Cider Mill's general manager. Developers routinely call to express interest in the 59-acre property.

"I think the sale of the farm is imminent; it's just a matter of timing," Nodar said.

Caragh Fitzgerald, an educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension's Howard office, said the fate of Maple Lawn and Cider Mill farms does not indicate a trend.

She said others are thriving and that beginning farmer classes are increasing in Howard.

"Although some farms are going out of business for various reasons, there are people who want to farm and want to get started in the area," Fitzgerald said. "We have some tremendous marketing opportunities in this county, and farmers see that."

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