Executive, farmer swap fields

September 22, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

County Executive James N. Robey drove a green John Deere tractor hitched to a tiller up and down a field in Sykesville yesterday morning under a bright blue sky, leaving behind straight grooves full of barley seed.

A few miles away, behind the shaded windows of the county executive's conference room in Ellicott City, dairy farmer Phil Jones looked at graphs and discussed the county budget.

The two men traded jobs for the morning to encourage connections between the county's busy suburban centers and its rural west.

The switch was one activity in the county's first Farm-City Celebration, which includes farm tours, farmers' markets, educational programs and other events through Sunday. Organizers hope that the more people understand and appreciate farm life, the more farms will be able to thrive alongside booming suburbs.

"It is important to interact with our neighbors and help them understand who we are and what we do," said Martha Clark, owner of Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City and chairwoman of the Farm-City Celebration Council. "We think we contribute a lot to the county and we enjoy sharing it with other people."

Sharing the farm experience through farm stands, farmers' markets and agritourism activities such as pumpkin patches and hayrides has been an important strategy for local farmers to make the most of their products.

Jim and Linda Brown used to raise dairy cattle on their Glenelg farm, but like many local operations, they found that direct marketing was more profitable and more compatible with their surroundings.

They gave up the cows for an operation that includes a country store, vegetables and plants, pick-your-own pumpkins and cut-your-own Christmas trees. Getting people out to the farm, "that's our hardest dilemma," said Linda Brown. "There are only so many advertising dollars."

She said she was glad the celebration offered another opportunity to bring attention to local farms. "We enjoy having [visitors] come out to learn what we do," she said.

Robey started his learning experience at Bowling Green Farm by milking cows at 7 a.m. under the supervision of Phil Jones' son, Tim Jones. Tim is the ninth generation to work the farm, which milks about 112 cows twice a day.

Robey fed calves, had a big breakfast and then took the tractor out to the field - which most of the year grows corn for cattle feed - to plant a cover crop of barley that will save it from erosion and absorb excess nitrogen.

As he stepped down from the driver's seat after covering several acres, Robey said, "That's the most relaxation I've had in a long time."

But he noted that most of a farmer's life involves hard work and long hours.

Robey said that when he is sick or overworked, "I can say, `Reschedule everything.'"

"You can't reschedule the cows," he said. "[Farming] requires a commitment that most people don't begin to understand."

Jones, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, also gained some insight.

At the George Howard building, a pair of wooden cows decorated the conference table to make Jones feel more at home, but a series of meetings were typical of the county executive's usual day.

After discussions with the directors of public works and planning and zoning, Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks explained how a change in gas prices or a snowy winter can throw off budget projections and require spending cuts.

After the job trade ended, Jones said, "I didn't have to make any hard decisions, but someone will have to."

Wacks said he didn't mind laying out the budget for a newcomer while Robey worked in the fields. He said, "I think it gives everyone a perspective on the tough job everyone has, the tough decisions everyone makes."

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