The Silver Queen

Helen Weber's fans say she sells some of the sweetest corn around.

August 09, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

She has a name, really she does. People know her as the "Farm Lady" but her name is Helen Weber.

"There's no story here," she says at her farm in northern Baltimore County. "You're not going to take my picture. I've burned every picture of myself."

No story, no pictures. To the untrained reader, these would appear to be setbacks. But see, she's really kind of a softie. Weber half-barks at her teen-aged summer helper, "Laugh on your own time!" but it's just something fun to say while watering mums. Weber is the boss lady, but she clearly adores her 2-year-old grandson Andy and softens around other little ones who come by with their parents on any given going-to-get-veggies day.

And another thing: she did not burn every picture of herself. Her husband Gene, officially retired yet still working at a nearby quarry, carries a picture of her in his wallet. He leaves the vegetable business to his wife. They've been married 50 years, having first met when both families lived in what became known as Five Farms in Timonium. Maybe Helen Weber will let us see the photograph. When you get to a certain age, you want to see people at certain other ages - see them when they got married, see them before you see them now separating green beans or hacking a cabbage head. There's more to life than sweet corn.

Then again, maybe life just needs more corn. If you find yourself in White Hall off Gibson Road, consider dropping in to see the Farm Lady. Of course, Maryland has farmers' markets and other roadside vegetable stands. But what farm has sweeter corn or better fall spinach? What place has a disabled dog named Katie that will snatch asparagus from your hand?

What place has a sun-toasted, stooped, 68-year-old farm lady who will run John Deere circles around you on her farm?

This place.

"We do pretty good for a sitting-around-the-corner-kind-of-thing," son Gene Weber says about his mother's 35-year-old business. It started as one neighbor selling vegetables to another, then word-of-mouth spread and his mother needed a whole stand - which is now tented right off her back door. "I'd like to have a nice building for her to sell in, but we can't do that," her son says. "We're about as big as we can handle."

The occupational hazards of farming are gravely illustrated in his backstory. Now 49, Weber lost his right arm in a combine accident 20 years ago on a neighboring farm. The combine's auger bore into his right shoulder and permanently crushed the range of his farm work. His younger brother Michael, 11 at the time, was pressed into cattle and hog duty. Gene, who is nicknamed Butch, adapted by modifying both his tractors and work day; for example, he tends to the farm's gourds and still leaves the hogs to Michael. They both work the farm, leaving their mother to work them.

Helen Weber still starts her day around 5 a.m.

"We've had so much rain. It's hard to keep up," she says, driving a John Deere four-wheel number. "Show him the weeds," her son hollers. The rain, for a fact, has made weed control uncontrollable. Weber does what anyone would do showing someone around a farm - she points out green things: cucumbers there, spinach here, beans there. And there, her white corn stands nearly as high as an elephant's eye.

So, what's eating at these soybeans?


Do you have a name for your farm?

"No. Just here."

(The Here Farm?)

Did you do anything special on your 50th wedding anniversary?

"No. Just cake and ice cream."

Information is leaked that she is a diligent smoker.

"I don't want to hear about it. If I croak, I croak."

The agri-tour ended back at the tent. So far, it had been a slow day in the vegetable and conversation business but nothing had croaked. Their summer employee, 16-year-old Lindsay Chenoweth, was watering mums or something mum-like. Hard to get young people to work these days, her employer says. This is Lindsay's third summer here. "She has such a wonderful boss," says Weber in a gust of sarcasm. "You love me!" Lindsay says. "Right," her boss says.

Every farm is seemingly issued a dog or two. Talk turns to the late great Angus, a chunky-headed Labrador known for pulling his own corn thus eliminating the middle man. He followed Weber everywhere - mainly trailed her into the kitchen where she'd warm his dinner. No cold meals for Angus, who lived 11 human years. Now the farm has another pound pup, Katie, with her lame right paw. She gets along fine, having made her own modifications: a slight limp which never impairs her outlook.

Finally this weekday morning, a few customers pull off Gibson Road. Weber's advertising campaign consists of a few hand-written road signs that essentially say, there's corn for sale, turn here. As usual, her customers don't come empty-handed. Many donate produce bags to the Farm Lady, so she doesn't have to spend her money on plastic or paper. It's their idea of a farm cooperative.

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