It's all-natural for owners of Mount Airy farm

Howard Neighbors

June 02, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

The approach to Wagon Wheel Ranch in Mount Airy is like driving right into the pages of a children's storybook on idyllic farm life. A long, gently curving wildflower bed edged by a neat white fence leads to a dense tree-lined drive where, in the distance ahead, you get a glimpse of charming wooden barns alongside verdant fields.

Brian Schiner, 47, co-owner of Wagon Wheel Ranch with his brother, Jay, 46, said, "When I look around here, I see the weeds and things to be done, and I think, in another year or so, it will be just how I like it."

The Schiners live in custom-built homes on the 51-acre Howard County farm, which was purchased as raw land and exactingly planned by Brian Schiner.

"There was no road here," said Brian Schiner, explaining how much of the land was covered with trees and had to be cleared. The brothers directed the heavy equipment, serving as general contractors on every part of Wagon Wheel Ranch's construction.

Said Brian Schiner: "It was easier to do it myself than to explain what needed to be done."

Five-and-a-half years ago, Schiner survived a life-altering diving accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Because he uses a wheelchair to get around, he had specific ideas of how the place was to be laid out. For example, a track runs around the farm, so the Schiners can drive a horse-drawn carriage or ride a horse around the entire perimeter to survey the fields.

Raising goats

During his lengthy recuperation in a hospital bed, Schiner watched television and surfed the Internet to research a potential new business venture: raising Boer goats.

"Originally, I built the farm, and had the animals for scenery," said Schiner. "But when I did some research, I found that the only thing we don't produce [in Maryland] is goat meat, and there was a demand for it."

According to a research publication created by the Small-scale and Part-time Farming Project at Pennsylvania State University with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Extension Service, goat meat is the most highly consumed meat in the world.

Jay Schiner retired from the Baltimore City Police Department -- where he served 18 years -- and joined his brother in the business. "There are a lot of health-conscious people who are interested in animals that are naturally fed and free-range," he said. In fact, the farm has an "egg mobile," a mobile chicken house that fertilizes a pasture with chicken manure while it houses hens producing free-range eggs.

Wagon Wheel Ranch is currently the largest goat farm in Maryland. "Our animals are humanely raised, grass-fed, with no hormones, no antibiotics," said Brian Schiner.

The ranch also raises sheep, pigs, chickens and Akbash livestock guard dogs -- which protect the livestock from predators such as foxes and coyotes -- as well as the Miniature breed of cattle. Brian Schiner said that the Miniature cow breed does not mean the cows are necessarily small. "It's what cows looked like before science got involved," he said. "They are not artificially fattened -- they are grass-fed, docile, and they don't destroy the land [on which they graze]."

Though Wagon Wheel Ranch has several distinct fields, Brian and Jay Schiner make a point of rotating their goats on these and other nearby leased lands -- more than 200 acres in all -- to keep the animals free from parasites and to allow the grass to recover. The ranch recently initiated an "invasive weed project," whereby land owners can rent 10 goats for $100 a day, and employ a safe, pesticide-free method of weed eradication.

With approximately 400 does and 50 to 60 kids, 200 Katahdin-Dorper cross sheep, 13 Miniature cattle, eight Akbash guard dogs and nine pigs, work on Wagon Wheel Ranch seems never-ending. Kristen Willie, 22, works full-time on the ranch and manages everything from the animals to the books. She starts at 8 a.m., bottle-feeding baby goats who had been neglected or left to fend for themselves by their mothers.

During this season, Willie regularly scours the fields for kids, staying with a doe in labor if she appears to need help. There is also the feeding of all the other livestock and monitoring the goats that have been rented out, as well as rotating others to new fields. The animals are regularly wormed and checked individually. She also checks to see if the farm's irrigation system needs to be moved.

"Believe me, there's always something to be done," Willie said.

Willie, who earned an associate's degree in business management from Howard Community College in 2004, loves working with animals. When asked how she knows so much about such a variety of animals, Willie speaks of her early 4-H training. Experience is the best teacher. "If you don't do it hands-on, you really don't learn anything," she said.

Well-run farm

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