Bridging a culture gap

The second Farm-City Celebration seeks to promote greater understanding between the county's rural and suburban communities

September 25, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

At a picnic table crowded by politicians and corporate types, Polly Moore picked out a bit of fashion incongruity. The 79-year-old farmer had spotted a woman wearing a pair of open-toed, neon yellow, 4-inch heels -- at an event on a farm.

"Look at all of the `farm people' coming to the farm," Moore said dryly, pointing at the shoes that, for her, seemed to define the cultural divide between the county's rural west and its cul-de-sac-dominated east.

Those different perspectives met head-on this week, at the second Farm-City Celebration in Ellicott City, a way for the county's farmers to say, don't write our obituary yet.

"This place is an oasis in the middle of chaos," former state Sen. James Clark Jr. said at the Tuesday government-meets-farmer luncheon on his family's farm on Route 108. "We are in an ever-changing area, yet we hope to stay the same."

But little has. What remains of agriculture in Howard County is different than it was a generation ago.

Corporate conglomerates now dominate traditional, labor-intensive crops, such as corn, wheat and dairy. Howard's family farmers are turning to niche markets and agro-tourism. For instance, the Moores' Larriland Farm, where customers pick their own fruit, is as much entertainment as it is a trip to a high-end grocery.

The more profits these farms reap, the less likely it will be that future generations divide the land and sell it in chunks, the state's agriculture secretary, Lewis R. Riley, said at the luncheon.

The Moore family is a prime example. The family has toiled for decades to build up the 280-acre Woodbine farm -- and Polly Moore's daughter, Lynn, now is Larriland's chief executive officer.

"The next generation gets to make their own decisions," said Lynn Moore. "We just have to brainwash them into farming. It's easy to get out of that mindset because it's totally different from 99 percent of the population."

But the thinking goes that the two worlds have to interact with one another to foster understanding.

And in a county where fights over growth are loud and lingering, mutual understanding is needed.

That is what led to a reversal of roles Tuesday, when Lynn Moore swapped jobs with County Executive James N. Robey. Moore attended a meeting and toured the county's detention center Tuesday morning, while Robey lugged dozens of irrigation pipes from the farm to storage.

Although the exchange provided each an insight into the other's life, it also helped Robey exude a farmer-friendly image -- a county media advisory noted the event was a "great photo opportunity" to capture Robey on a tractor.

Walking back from depositing the pipes on the outskirts of the woods, Robey's yellow T-shirt was covered in sweat. Farm Vice President Guy Moore -- Polly Moore's son -- told Robey that he needed more than a powerful politician's ear. He needed rain and jokingly asked Robey if he could deliver it.

The Moores are in a better position than some others. After selling their dairy farm to Columbia founder James W. Rouse and moving to Woodbine, the family expanded Larriland's pond to 8 acres from a half-acre. Water from the pond irrigates their produce and has made the crops less susceptible to drought.

But even so, Polly Moore said, they've sucked the pond nearly dry three times.

"We can farm as long as our surroundings allow us," she said. "It depends on whether my children can earn enough money to put it aside for retirement and their children. It depends on whether their children stay or whether they go. And it depends on the weather. It's purely economical."

For her part, Lynn Moore got a good look at the workings of the county bureaucracy. She said she was impressed that as much weight seemed to be given to citizens' concerns as to multimillion-dollar budgets. She also marveled at all the things that needed Robey's attention.

But like any politician, she delivered some great one-liners as she addressed Tuesday's luncheon group. She spent the morning "smiling and nodding quite a bit," she said. Unfortunately, she couldn't lower taxes or change zoning rules, but she said that it was "kind of fun" wearing a dress.

And while waiting in line for the lunch buffet, she summed up the cultural divide -- one that won't be resolved over a meal or a morning exchange -- with a reference to her shoes.

"I don't know how long I'm going to be able to stand in these heels," she said of her conservative pumps. "And these are low."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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