Jay Rhine's ancestors purchased a dairy farm in West Friendship in 1923. Rhine was the fourth generation of Rhine dairy farmers when he started mowing lawns on the side for a little extra cash.
Nine years later, the lawn-mowing business had grown into a major landscaping company with 60 full-time employees, including an architect, an arborist and 20 masons.
Rhine Lawn Care and Landscaping provides pretty much everything a person could need on his or her property, from mowing and pruning to complex architectural creations such as patios, pool decks and retaining walls.
Rhine milked his last cow in 2003, though he still has about 20 beef cattle on his 141 acres, he said. He also has horses and pigs, and grows corn, soybeans and other crops. Like other longtime Howard County farmers, Rhine has considered the annual Howard County Fair a summertime tradition.
And this year, he decided to do something for the fair. His company provided landscaping around the newly renovated 4H activities building, including a plaza of gray and red pavers, a new flagpole, shrubs and retaining walls. Benches will be added.
The work would have cost the fairgrounds about $25,000, but Rhine did it free, he said. He also promised to maintain it for 10 years. In exchange, he gets a sign advertising that the work was done by Rhine.
"I just kind of wanted to be part of the fair, to be honest with you," Rhine said. "I've been coming here my whole life. ... I wanted to find a way to put a mark on the fair."
John Fleishell, president of the fair, said the project was a win-win situation.
"They save money, and we definitely save money, as well," he said.
In previous years, he said, Rhine would spend a considerable amount of money setting up an elaborate display for the fair, then taking it down when the fair ended. Now, Rhine has something permanent, and so does the fair.
"It really added to the front of the building," Fleishell said.
Rhine has two younger siblings, but he was the one who took over the dairy business in 1995, when his father died at age 50. Rhine was 19, and he dropped out of Howard Community College to run the farm. While operating the dairy, he began cutting grass and offering landscaping services on the side.
"I built the company up to where it is today," said Rhine, sitting with the company's general manager, Rob Conaway, in a vendor tent at the fair.
Rhine estimates he works on between 100 and 140 projects a year. Most of his customers are residents of Howard County, he said. Some are fixing up older homes, while others are moving into new ones.
In the past few years, with the real estate market in a frenzy, business has been great, Rhine said. Even now, with home sales slowing, business remains strong because curb appeal is more important than ever when selling a home, he said.
Rhine said he can help customers find the right landscaping for their property and personality. If they lack a green thumb, he can find greenery that is nearly impossible to kill. If they are troubled by nibbling deer, he can suggest plants that do not taste good to the deer. His team will also design, build and maintain structures such as pool decks, retaining walls and patios.
"Small jobs, big jobs, anything that comes around," is how Rhine puts it. He'll often devise a multi-year plan for customers who cannot afford to do all the work at once.
One of his earliest customers was Lynn Swidersky, who has nearly 2 acres in Ellicott City. When she moved in, she said, the property was overgrown.
"It was a job beyond my means," she said. "I wanted someone who could come in and really give it the grace and beauty that a piece of land like that should have."
For the first couple of years, Rhine suggested just mowing and mulching, but gradually he moved on to adding shrubs and gardens. "We had a game plan," said Swidersky.
Rhine Landscaping maintains the property, including sending crews to plow when it snows.
"I've never used anyone else because I don't need anyone else," Swidersky said. "He is just the nicest person."
Rhine Lawn Care and Landscaping is at 12895 Old Frederick Road, West Friendship. 410-442-2445.