Trying to sprout better relationships with business

Office-dwellers spend day learning about farming

March 21, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County's business leaders left their stuffy offices yesterday for the wide-open spaces of some of the county's largest farms. They fed calves, petted foals and counted how many piglets one sow could suckle.

When they returned to the Carroll County Agriculture Center to wash up for a home-style fried chicken lunch, they all had tales to tell.

"I had cows licking my fingers," said Kathy Menasche, director of continuing education at Carroll Community College.

"I'll trade you some horse spit," said Jim Steele, manager of Shamrock Farms in Woodbine and vice president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau.

The farm bureau organized the exchange between business and farmers, hoping it would promote a better understanding of what the farmer does and the widespread impact of agriculture, Maryland's top industry. Other than smells, noise and heavy equipment that occasionally ties up traffic, the group found many similarities between white-collar work and agriculture.

"The needs of farmers are the same as those of small-business owners," said Bonnie Grady, president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce. "We want to promote the image of farmer. You are the biggest part of the community. Let us be your voice."

When neighbors visit and see what farmers face 365 days of the year, it helps eliminate problems, said Steele. "Farming creates wealth," he added. "Farming is an industry that is always evolving. We find a niche where we can fit and make our bread and butter. But our voice is getting smaller and we are being regulated by people who are not in farming."

None of the farm visitors yesterday are regulators, but the farm bureau chose them for their strong voices in the community, said Sharon Fritz, farm board secretary.

Menasche toured a dairy farm and found drooling calves charming. "I was flabbergasted that five people can farm 900 acres and milk 200 cows every day," she said.

Grady mingled with pigs and cattle and learned lessons in genetics. "Farming seems the hardest way to live," she said. "I am amazed that all of you find time to give back."

David Bollinger took a break from writing insurance policies and concentrated on wheat, corn and soybean production.

"I saw a computer system that tracks the weather across the nation, shows the layout of a field and gives commodities prices from Chicago," he said. "These guys are not flying by the seat of their pants."

The tour was helpful, Bollinger said.

"I insure a lot of farmers and this gives me a better idea of what their day is about," said Bollinger, who dabbles in a family beef operation as a hobby. "I had no real idea of the day-to-day labor on a farm. I did know better than to wear a business suit today."

Robert Rosen went from office to stable, swapping his dress clothes for denim.

"I don't really know anything about any aspect of farming," said Rosen, owner of a manufacturing business and developer of the Westminster Commerce Center. "I thought it would be interesting to walk in a farmer's shoes and get a better insight into what he needs and how the county can better help him be successful."

He saw thoroughbred mares and new foals, $1 million stallions and 600 acres of lush pastureland at Shamrock Farms in Woodbine. He complimented Steele on the cleanliness of the stables, the organization and his wealth of information.

Steele, who for 26 years has managed Shamrock Farms for the Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, easily spilled off a mare's lineage and her foal's assets. While the chestnut animals look the same to amateurs, he knows his horses by name. The farm houses about 120 now but can manage as many as 200.

He recalled races won, owners' purses and the whereabouts of champions. Instead of orchestrating business deals, Rosen learned about high-tech breeding, genetics and equine management. Horses are a $5.2 billion industry in Maryland, Steele said. He also raises wheat and alfalfa and occasionally cattle.

"Farms stay alive because technology has kept us ahead," Steele said. "We really were the first environmentalists. We treat our land and our livestock as best we can. If we don't, we will go broke."

Born near Pimlico racetrack, Rosen recalled one brief but scary pony ride as a child as his only equine encounter. Yesterday, he spent time in a stall with a 1,200-pound mare and her foal, and gently patted both animals.

Steele showed him the breeding of thoroughbreds yesterday - a pairing that could result in another winning racehorse for Shamrock Farms. Eastern Echo, a 1,300-pound stallion whose offspring have won more than $15 million, got together with Hannerly, who has borne four colts that are untested at the track. Their encounter was in a barn, with an assist from Steele and another breeder. Thoroughbreds cannot be artificially inseminated, but the supervised barn encounter is about as natural as it can be, Steele said.

"You can't let a stallion worth millions breed out in the field," he said. "The mare might not be receptive and she could kick him." In 16 days, Steele will know if the mare is pregnant. Ultrasound had shown she was fertile and after checking a sample of the stallion's sperm under the microscope, Steele was optimistic. If Hannerly is pregnant, she would foal in about 11 months. A DNA test will attest to parentage.

Rosen called the tour enlightening. "The reason people don't understand farming is because they have not been exposed to it," he said. "I would invite anybody to walk in their shoes."

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