Herds of fun down on the farm in St. Mary's County

Bison, alpacas and turkeys, oh my

  • Snack time at Summerseat Farm. Bison are unpredictable and for that reason, an electrified fence separates them from visitors to the Mechanicsville animal refuge.
Snack time at Summerseat Farm. Bison are unpredictable and… (Ken Beem, Baltimore Sun )
November 27, 2012|By Barbara and Ken Beem, For The Baltimore Sun

The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the … wait, those aren't sheep, they're alpacas. And those rangy bovines look an awful lot like bison. And what about those long-legged turkeys running loose in the barnyard?

St. Mary's County, site of Maryland's first capital, has long been economically dependent on agriculture, and until a few decades ago, tobacco was king. One look at the farms scattered about the countryside, though, makes it clear that change has taken place. Living green, eating fresh and appreciating local heritage have resulted in a rise in agritourism in this Southern Maryland county, where visitors can experience on a personal level the trials and triumphs of unconventional approaches to farming.

At no place is this more evident than Allen Homestead, where Christina and Frank Allen live in an environmentally sound home and share 10 acres of carefully tended land with an exotic assortment of fauna and flora.

Sheep, including baby doll sheep that resemble miniature poodles, look over the flock of heritage poultry. In addition to protection, they yield fleece for Christina Allen's spinning and weaving projects and ultimately provide meat for the table and tallow for homemade soap. Pomegranate, oriental persimmon and various hybrid citrus trees bear fruit not usually found in this corner of the world. Helping the Allens live off the land is a year-round garden that produces, among other things, more than 40 varieties of lettuce.

But the Jersey Buff turkeys, Christina Allen's pride and joy and a source of artistic inspiration, rule the roost. Naturally disease-resistant, these heritage birds, unlike commercial broad-breasted white turkeys, can walk, fly and breed on their own. Critically endangered, there are approximately 80 Jersey Buffs in the world, and 35 of them are here at Allen Homestead.

Christina Allen knows her turkeys, and they know her. From Micro-Chip, a hand-raised tom and protagonist of her award-winning children's book, to Buffy, Kate and Wilma, the turkeys are easy to herd, looking to Allen as their leader. But aggressive toms are known as fiercely competitive and will even fight to the death, so thinning the flock for food purposes is justifiable. "It's what turkeys do," she said simply.

Once on the table, the dark meat of these turkeys is flavorful, the white meat succulent. Not surprisingly, Allen has already sold this year's Thanksgiving allotment of birds, but she keeps an email list of those desiring her turkeys. There's always next year.

In the northwestern corner of St. Mary's County stands Summerseat Farm. Established by a 1678 land grant, the 127-acre property, a working farm since the 18th century, is located just outside Mechanicsville and was once a tobacco plantation.

But nowadays, this historic property is the place where the buffalo roam. These massive beasts are often visible to passing motorists on Three Notch Road (Route 235), a major county thoroughfare.

Dick Wildes keeps 14 of his 50-head herd of bison (as they are technically known) at Summerseat, now a nonprofit animal sanctuary dedicated to keeping agricultural traditions alive. A retired printer, Wildes began raising bison in Maryland 32 years ago.

"They're a great stress release," he noted on a recent Saturday afternoon. "You can't herd buffaloes, but they'll follow a bucket of grain."

By way of demonstration, he stood outside the electrified fence that encircles their pen, cupped his hands around his mouth, and called, "Come on! Come on!" Almost immediately, the gigantic beasts thundered across the rolling countryside. Sherman, the alpha bull of the herd — and the only one Wildes has named — quickly made his way to the feeding trough and, after a respectful interval, the others followed him.

Interest in bison meat has risen in the past few years, Wildes said, because it's low in fat and calories. "It's sweeter than beef and does not have a gamy taste." He sells processed meat at Land O' Lakes Farm in nearby Hollywood and also supplies Cafe des Artistes, a Leonardtown restaurant, with the meat.

Having bison also provides a draw for visitors, according to Jimmy Dicus, president of Summerseat's board. "This herd is the only one in the region with public access."

At Nobella Alpacas just outside Leonardtown, the animals are not as big or as imposing. Patty Mattingly walks into the penned areas where two dozen Huacaya alpacas are passing a tranquil afternoon. Every day here is a quiet one, according to Mattingly, and that is part of the Peruvian transplants' great appeal.

"I just love animals, and I saw a commercial for alpacas on TV several years ago. I went to a farm to see them in person, and I thought they were the most magical animals ever," she said. Seven years ago, she started with two breeding females, and she was on her way.

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