County executive trades places with farmer in fourth year of suburban-rural exchange

Ulman swaps office for dirt of the farm

September 26, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

The dust inside a grain bin on South Manor Farm in Ellicott City swirled around County Executive Ken Ulman yesterday morning like the tornado that spun Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz.

Ulman climbed out of the cylindrical bin heaving and coughing - his black T-shirt covered in sweat - after a half-hour of shoveling and sweeping the last of the year's wheat harvest out of the silo.

"Phew! Man!" Ulman said as he removed his protective breathing mask. His asthma had kicked in, and he needed a moment to catch his breath and cough some more.

"I had no idea the amount of dust," Ulman said, then looked down at his dirt-coated mask for the first time. "Oh my God. Isn't that disgusting?"

While some of Howard County remains rural, most residents, like Ulman, are suburbanites with little knowledge of what it takes to run a farm.

The needs of the county's farmers and cul-de-sac dwellers are so different - and battles over development are loud and long - that the county hosts a mini-foreign exchange program to foster understanding. Opening the fourth year of the Farm/City Celebration, the executive spent yesterday morning working on two farms, while a farmer - Leslie Bauer - ran the government.

This was Ulman's first stint on a farm - a staff member reminded him to wear work boots and jeans, just in case - and by Ricky Bauer's estimation, he got off easy.

"We could have had him clean the equipment or spread manure, which gives off quite the aroma," said Ricky Bauer, 46, who owns more than 100 acres in Dayton and whose wife, Leslie, served as the county executive for the morning.

The Bauers' business melds both high-tech agribusiness with traditional, labor-intensive crops such as wheat, corn and sorghum.

While many Howard County farmers operate their farms as side businesses - often while commuting to white-collar jobs - Ricky Bauer is entirely dependent on the land, science and weather for his livelihood.

In addition to farming his own acres, Bauer co-manages the 1,150-acre South Manor Farm with owner Natalie Ziegler, a descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The South Manor Farm was formerly part of Carroll's Doughoregan estate.

"I'm just a glorified bookkeeper," Ziegler joked of her longtime business partnership with Bauer. "I sit on a computer, and Ricky sits on a tractor."

Droughts, such as the one the county is experiencing now, worry Ziegler and Bauer the most.

For instance, when wheat or corn is delivered to the mill, the moisture in it must be very close to 15 percent. Any higher or lower and the crop goes from $5 wheat per bushel to $2 animal feed per bushel.

In addition to the unpredictable weather, there's the unpredictable market. Ziegler and Mickey Day of Farm & Home Service, agreed on a price for South Manor Farm's wheat earlier this year.

Ziegler hopes that by the time Day hauls the wheat away, as he did yesterday, that the price of a bushel has fallen, so that Day pays her more than the wheat is worth. Day, on the other hand, bets that the market price for wheat will rise so that he can turn a profit when he sells it to a flour mill.

Yesterday's load of wheat from South Manor Farm, which Ulman helped shovel, was destined today for the Wilkens-Rogers Mill, located just across the Howard-Baltimore County line in Oella. It likely will end up in a bag of Washington Flour, Day said.

"If you read the history of Howard County, the original owners of that mill agreed to build it only after making a deal with the Carrolls that they would supply the wheat," Ricky Bauer said. Centuries later, "the Carrolls are still supplying that mill with wheat. I think that's kind of neat."

Technology and genetics have changed the business since then. After shoveling the wheat, Ulman traveled to the Bauers' Rural Rhythm Farm in Dayton, where he drove a $250,000 combine.

As Ulman plowed the equipment through the corn stalks, the combine shucked and stored the kernels and spit the shaved cobs out the back.

The combine is equipped with software and a global positioning system that maps the areas of the Bauers' farms with the best and worst yields. Using that information, Ricky Bauer applies less fertilizer in areas with richer soil, saving money and doing less harm to the environment.

"The only way we survive is by being more efficient," he said.

Leslie Bauer, 38, said that she also saw a need for efficiency yesterday, but of a different kind.

As executive, she received briefings on the county Health Department's flu vaccine efforts and toured the Western Regional Park and Glenwood Community Center - and said she had difficulty keeping on schedule.

"It was nice to have people telling you where to go and getting you to where you needed to be, so you don't get lost," she said.

Meanwhile, after Ricky Ulman finished his morning work and stepped out of the combine, he said that he was most thankful for the air conditioning in the equipment's cabin.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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