How A Garden Grows

Working machinery, good weather are blessings on a farm

Maryland Journal

September 12, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO - The fog hung wispy and thin in the early morning over Carmon and Charlene Dilworth's 36-acre spread here in the "Green Garden County" of Caroline on the Eastern Shore.

Up and out the door before 7 a.m., Carmon Dilworth headed for a small irrigation pond where he cranked a diesel motor, spreading a geyser of water from a network of pipes on a thirsty but thriving crop of lima beans and the last of the season's tomatoes.

He had first nurtured these plants in a greenhouse, transplanted them, coaxing them through heat and humidity - timing them perfectly for customers who are spoiled enough to expect summer's bounty to last deep into September, maybe even longer if frost holds off a few more weeks.

"It's been hot as the devil, and the normal stuff we planted to have in the fall - cabbage, green beans and broccoli - are about burned up," said Carmon, who was named for a great-uncle. "The kind of heat we had this year just sucks moisture out, so the plant can't keep up."

Still, there are plenty of peaches and apples to be picked, corn, okra, pole beans, limas and raspberries, too. Last week, the Dilworths were digging and bagging potatoes.

The place could hardly have a more fitting name. Sand Hill Farm sits beside a stream on the kind of slight rise that passes for a hill here in the flat fertile farmland of Caroline County, where just about any edible fruit or vegetable will thrive, at least with persistent irrigation.

The county is second in the state in vegetable production with sales of $7.9 million a year, according to the state Agriculture Department. The Dilworths' operation is small in an area where the average farm is 227 acres.

Carmon Dilworth, 62, guessed it has been a month since any substantial rain has touched the farm's powdery sand.

For the time being, it is the strawberries that are worrying him. The strawberries he had begun "double planting" in the same soil from which he harvested softball-sized onions a couple months ago must get in the ground - soon. If not, he will not harvest their fruit early next summer.

But the berry plants, wilting in little plastic trays, had to wait a few more hours on a recent day, as he spent a valuable hour at the auto parts store.

His wife, Charlene, 58, complained of transmission problems with the late-model Ford truck she uses to haul their crops to farmers' markets in Washington on Thursdays, St. Michaels on Saturdays and Bowie on Sundays.

On Monday mornings, she drives to southern Prince George's County for a wholesale market that draws buyers from grocery stores, restaurants and produce-stand operators who don't grow their own crops.

"I always tell people this business is like having a garden, a 36-acre garden," Charlene said. "Anybody who's ever had a garden has some idea what you mean. But it's a lot more work than they'd ever think."

Carmon brought a vacuum pump back from the auto parts store that he thought might fix the problem. But before he could work on the truck, he had other chores to do.

With one truck out of commission, he hooked up a wide trailer to the hitch on a battered Ford F250, an old faithful 1987 model that has served the farmers for more than 300,000 miles.

Charlene needed the truck and trailer to pick up chrysanthemums, one of the few things they don't grow themselves, from a nearby farm.

In the past few years, large nurseries and others have begun planting mums in their own pots, a more involved process the couple doesn't want to tackle.

Later, Carmon limped down farm road (the slight tic in his gait the result of disc surgery a few years ago), flipping valves on his irrigation pipe to send a good soaking to a hay field that borders his property line a half-mile from busy Route 313, which runs from the county seat in Denton.

Helping out at the Dilworths' produce stand was neighbor Patti Spiering, the wife of one of the few dairy farmers still operating in Caroline. She says that rapid growth in the area is a double-edged sword - forcing out more farmers but bringing more business to the produce stand.

The Dilworths, Baltimore County natives, bought here in 1978, leaving a 60-acre farm in Kingsville owned by Carmon's father and brother. It was next to impossible for three families to make a living on the one farm, Charlene said.

With four grown children - two sons, two daughters - willing to pitch in on the farm where they grew up, the Dilworths usually have the help they need.

On this day, they were glad to see their eldest son, 35-year-old Ben. A professional firefighter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he is a good mechanic who might have the answer to what ails his parents' pickup.

Carmon headed out to plant that last handful of strawberry plants in a bed that is protected with a layer of black plastic, which holds in heat and moisture.

"You just plant them and hope for the best," Carmon said. "That's pretty much what you do with everything. We'll see next spring."

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