Success rooted in innovation

A farmer's novel approach to his business brings in a bumper crop of customers

May 31, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The GOTCORN license tag on his pickup greatly understates what Brad Milton offers on his Harford County farm.

The store at Brad's Produce in Churchville is stocked with fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits, all manner of flowers and Brad's special fertilizer and potting soil. It also carries honey, jellies, pickles, relish and tomato sauce, all made with items grown in the surrounding fields and greenhouses.

The man just named Harford County's most innovative farmer does not come from generations of those who till the land for a living. Milton grew up in a Harford County neighborhood near Bel Air, but he planted vegetables in the backyard from the time he was 8.

And now, at 35, he is tending nearly 200 acres, cashing in on the agri-tourism trend with corn and straw mazes, hayrides, school tours and a tile labyrinth, and trading on the buy-local trend that makes homegrown products so appealing to shoppers.

"People want to come out to the country and walk across a farm," he said. "This farm has a great story to tell, and that's why agri-entertainment works."

Milton has built a loyal customer base by selling fresh, locally grown items and letting people get to know the farmer who grew it.

The preference for buying local has shot up nearly 77 percent in the past year, according to a survey by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they have shopped at farmers' markets and roadside stands.

"There is a real trend among consumers who want to deal directly with producers, and it is having an impact on Maryland agriculture," said Mark Powell, chief of marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Ginger Myers, regional marketing specialist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, who toured Milton's farm last year, called him an ag entrepreneur who understands his customer mix and the desire to buy direct.

"He is doing a great job taking the pulse of his customers and stocking to match what they want," she said. "When you are shopping for food, you buy with your eyes. Brad Milton understands that. He knows how to make a pleasing look, and he is right out on the road with it."

Milton said his success is based on word-of-mouth, customer relations and direct marketing - he mailed 10,000 postcards in April to let customers know the farm had reopened for the season.

"That is really smart marketing," Powell said. "Brad also has a Web site and he has got people blogging, even sharing recipes. He is definitely diversifying and tying into the strong demand for local."

When Milton is not in the field, he might be advising customers on keeping a plant healthy or growing tomatoes. He also added more labor-intensive lima beans and okra to the number of crops growing in his fields this year after customer requests for the items.

"The customer has to be the top priority," he said. "You ask what they want and grow what they want. They are spending their hard-earned money with you."

Connie Villareal of Abingdon had already filled a wagon with hanging flower baskets, fresh asparagus and strawberries.

"I came here when Brad first started out, before there was a store, and I have been coming ever since," she said. "He has everything and gives great service."

Milton honed his agriculture skills in a typical 1980s subdivision. There he cultivated vegetables in an ever-expanding backyard garden that eventually filled a vacant lot next door - with permission from its owner. By 13, he was selling produce throughout the neighborhood.

While a student at C. Milton Wright High School, he hired out to area farms, milked a lot of cows, tended livestock and ran a lawnmowing business. After earning a degree in agribusiness from the University of Delaware in 1995, he rented a 50-acre farm in Churchville and sold produce grown there at area farmers' markets and vegetable stands.

"I am one of the few from college that is actually farming," he said. "Most of them are working in commodities markets. I like being outside, working with my hands and marketing my products."

Today he farms nearly 200 acres in Churchville and employs about a dozen people. He owns 42 of those acres along Asbury Road, where, in the past eight years, he has built a barn, several greenhouses, a store and a home that he shares with his wife, Karin, and their two children.

Milton was recently named Harford County's Innovative Farmer if the Year by the county farm board.

"Brad was an innovator before he knew it," said John Sullivan, chief of Harford's Department of Agriculture. "He is young, hardworking and has bright ideas. He just kept plugging away, leasing ground and selling local products. He didn't even grow up on a farm, but his children have been in the strawberry patch since they were born."

Milton opened Brad's Produce in 2000 and met Karin, a former teacher, when she took a summer job at one of his stands. They got married nearly six years ago, and she's a full-time farmer now, too.

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