Sparks family makes a living in vegetables

On The Farm

May 28, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

At a time when big farms keep getting bigger as a means of survival, a Baltimore County couple is accomplishing what is considered nearly impossible: managing a comfortable living on a 5-acre vegetable farm.

"We are not getting rich, but we make enough money to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle," Jack Gurley, 39, said of Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks, which he runs with his wife, Beckie.

Farms like Calvert's Gift - in which the operators derive all of their income from the farm - are rare in Maryland and the nation, according to David Martin, director of the University of Maryland cooperative extension office in Baltimore County.

"I've not seen anything like this before in this area," said Martin, who has been an extension agent for 18 years.

Farms ranging in size from one acre to nine acres generate just 10 percent of farm revenue in Maryland, according to Norman Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland farm statistics office. But even that figure can be misleading, because the majority of those operations are nursery or greenhouse operations, not fruit and vegetable farms, he said.

Bennett said farms of 1,000 acres are becoming more common in Maryland and some grain farms are as large as 3,000 or 4,000 acres.

The Gurley farm has attracted the attention of the agriculture community. An array of state and federal farm organizations is sponsoring a field day at Calvert's Gift next month, an open house at which farmers, extension agents or anyone who is interested can learn about earning a living from a small farm.

The Gurleys began farming after leaving jobs at EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc. in Hunt Valley, where they met 11 years ago. She was a chemist, he a fisheries biologist.

"We just decided one day that this is what we wanted to do," said Beckie Gurley, 43.

Jack Gurley added, "We didn't want the corporate lifestyle. We enjoy working outdoors."

They credit their successful organic farming operation to a combination of growing techniques and marketing efforts.

"We try to give people what they want," Beckie Gurley said, noting that the farm produces more than 60 varieties of vegetables.

"About the only thing that we don't grow is sweet corn and cantaloupes," said Jack Gurley, adding that those products take up too much space and that plenty of competition for them already exists.

As an example of their ability to get a premium price for a good product, Jack Gurley said he could sell a variety of organic tomatoes for $2 a pound in August and September. That's a time when the market is usually flooded with tomatoes and other farmers are wholesaling their non-organic tomatoes for as little as 50 cents a pound.

Like other items, the strawberries at Calvert's Gift Farm are grown for taste, not for looks.

"The Earliglows might not be bigger than my thumb, but taste-wise, there is not a strawberry any better," Jack Gurley said.

Marketing is just as important to the viable operation of the farm. "Part of our success is diversity - diversity of crops and diversity of markets," Beckie Gurley said.

In addition to selling to restaurants and at weekly farmers' markets in Bel Air, Catonsville and Takoma Park, the Gurleys participate in a small but growing arrangement called community-supported agriculture (CSA).

By making an investment of $400 in advance, consumers buy a share of the Gurleys' weekly harvest.

Payment is made in January or February and provides the farm with capital for seed and any other items needed to get crops in the ground. During the harvest season, about 50 investors come to the farm each week to pick up a box of fresh produce.

The arrangement is desirable because it spreads the risk between farmer and consumer.

"If there's a major drought and we lose our crops, we don't have to absorb the full loss," Jack Gurley said.

The Gurleys also belong to a cooperative that pools produce to supply a CSA in Montgomery County that serves about 135 members.

As in the case of the big grain farms needing to get bigger to remain viable, size plays a role with the profitability of the Gurley farm.

"If we got any bigger, we wouldn't likely be any more profitable," said Beckie Gurley. "We would need more equipment. We would have to pay for more outside labor and we would have to work longer days."

For the Gurleys - parents of daughters Emma, 9, and Taylor, 8 - the farm year begins in February, when tomato seeds are planted in a modified greenhouse, and continues until late October when the last crops are harvested.

During the winter months, Jack Gurley travels throughout the country, primarily in New England, where there is more small-scale farming, explaining to others how it's possible to make a living with a small farm.

At times, Beckie Gurley wonders whether her husband is divulging too many trade secrets during his winter travels.

"But no two farms are alike," she said. "We have a good combination of growing and marketing skills. We have found our niche in the market."

The field day event will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Calvert's Gift Farm, 16813 Yeoho Road in Sparks. The event is free. For information, contact the Baltimore County Cooperative Extension office at 410-666-1022.

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