Howard farms still a growth industry

Agriculture: Farmers cater to specialized tastes, `pick-your-own' customers and `agri-tourism' to profit from the influx of new homes.

March 21, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With more than $200 million in sales a year, agriculture still rates among the top five industries in Howard County. But in a place that once was almost all farmland, the picture of farming continues to change drastically.

Homes have cropped up at a rate of 200 a year in the past five years alone. Farms, stables and nurseries now account for only about a quarter of the land, according to Charles Feaga, vice president of the Howard County Farm Bureau.

Howard County farmers have learned to change with the times. These days, sprawling tracts are giving way to smaller "boutique" farms, aimed at serving specialized - and profitable - tastes.

"The news here now is direct marketing," said Ginger Meyers, agricultural economic development specialist. "Small specialty farms are tying closer to consumers. The good news is, with so much development, there are customers everywhere, and people want to buy locally."

County farms grow more than corn and soybeans. These days some specialize in goat's milk soap and herbs, organic vegetables and cut-your-own Christmas trees.

"I was looking for a natural treatment for my daughter's eczema," said R.J. Caulder, who produces goat's milk soap on Breezy Willow Farm, less than 4 acres in West Friendship. "My kids had dairy goats when they were in 4-H. I had leftover goat's milk from that."

Caulder makes 50 kinds of soap on her "farmette," selling them in stores throughout the area. She is expanding into flowers and herbs.

For others, farming is in the blood. Gene Mullinix, co-owner of Roland H. Mullinix & Sons, a cattle farm in Woodbine, is a seventh-generation farmer.

"We still farm about 700 acres," Mullinix said. "Things have changed. We have about 700 cows where we used to have 3,000. We now make a lot of our living from ... fertilizer and grain handling instead of beef production.

"But I still believe a farm is the finest place to raise children," he said. "It teaches kids responsibility. They have to milk those cows twice a day, seven days a week.

"And they learn life lessons they would never learn anywhere else. They get to witness miracles of nature. Simple things like putting a seed into the ground and watching it grow, and amazing things like watching a cow when she is calving."

For some of those new to the industry, farming is a dream come true.

"I love working in the ground and working with soil," said M. Linda Martinak, who started farming Tranquility Farm in Marriottsville last year. "I'm really only farming an area the size of half a football field."

By day, Martinak is the dean of continuing studies at the Frederick campus of Mount St. Mary's College. In her spare time, she grows green beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, pumpkins and melons, and plans to participate in one of the county's farmers' markets this year.

Sally Martin has owned Evergreen Stables, a horse boarding and training facility in Fulton, for 11 years.

"I always rode horses, but I didn't get my own horse until I was in my 30s," Martin said. "I was running a ceramic-tile business when the opportunity to buy this stable came up. It's been a truly wonderful experience. The people that board their horses with us have become like family." Martin, with the help of her stable manager, Beth Barritt, boards 28 horses.

But even those not ready to hoe their own fields and milk their own cows can find ways to enjoy the farming experience.

This is the age of "agri-tourism," Meyers said. There are many "pick-your-own" farms where people can pick seasonal fruit such as strawberries and peaches. Farms offer hayrides, petting zoos, pumpkin picking, cut-your-own flowers and agricultural tours.

"When you pick your own fruit, you get more than a wonderful-flavored product," said Lynn Moore, co-owner of Larriland Farm in Woodbine, which has thousands of visitors every year. "You have the memories of the wonderful day you spent with your children picking the strawberries yourself.

"The farm experience appeals to all your senses," Moore said. "You can enjoy the smells, colors, textures and sounds. And enjoy the peace and quiet."

People who don't want to pick fruit can still enjoy fresh fruit by participating in a farm subscription service. The customer pays by the week, and the farmer picks and boxes fruit in season.

And for those who don't have time to get out to the farm, an alternative is one of the county's farmers' markets.

Two farmers' markets operate twice a week in Columbia. One, at Mount Pisgah AME Church, is open Tuesdays from May to October. The other, at the east Columbia library, is held Thursdays from May through November. This year, a third market is scheduled to open at the Glenwood library in Cooksville. It will run Saturdays from June through September.

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