The sprawling farm along Annapolis Road in Gambrills stands as an oasis of rural life in the midst of suburbia. Cows graze beyond the white fence as commuters pass by; farm trucks carry organic produce to local farmers markets.
Maryland Sunrise Farm is on 857 acres that served as a dairy operation for the U.S. Naval Academy as recently as the 1990s; midshipmen got their milk straight from the source. Its corn maze is a fall tradition, and residents say the farm is a reminder of Anne Arundel's agricultural past, a marker of history in a fast-growing portion of the county not far from Fort Meade.
But many who have embraced the farm are worried about its future. Farm operators Edwin and Marian Fry are giving up their organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to use herbicides and synthetic fertilizer, a step they say is necessary to remain financially viable.
That move, on property controlled by Anne Arundel County, has sparked protest from residents and an online petition with some 1,400 signatures, as well as calls for local officials to intervene. The county, which leases the property from the Navy and subleases it to the Frys, is negotiating a new lease with the family. The most recent pact expired in December 2012.
"This has all been done underhanded and secretly," d'Alex Childers, a neighbor of the property, said. The farm, she said, "needs to stay organic."
The Fry family says a partial switch to nonorganic practices is needed to address issues such as weeds, new state regulations for managing phosphorus, the closure of an organic beef processing plant in Pennsylvania and the lack of a long-term lease.
"I am not arriving at this decision without a lot of consternation," said Edwin Fry, whose operation includes grain fields for animal feed, a herd of grass-fed beef cattle, a vegetable patch and the popular corn maze. About 570 acres are in active farming.
The county got into the farming business after the Navy stopped using the property in the late 1990s. The Navy first leased it to Horizon Organic Dairy, which ceased operations in 2004. The Fry family, which ran the farm for Horizon, then leased it.
In 2005, the Maryland Stadium Authority proposed building a horse park and 2,500-seat arena on the site. That proposal was opposed by many residents and elected officials, and ultimately the county stepped in and signed a 30-year lease with the Navy in 2007, effectively killing the horse park proposal.
To cover the annual $240,000 lease agreement with the Navy, the county opted to sublease to farmers. The Fry family stayed on as a tenant.
Federal law requires the land stay in agriculture, but there's no stipulation that the farming must be organic.
Some neighbors are concerned about the use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers on such a vast stretch of farmland.
Kelly Stern, manager of David's Natural Market next door to the farm, started a petition to urge county officials to require that the farm stay organic.
"I am surprised at the outpouring of feelings about the farm and about the organic verification, how really important it is to people," Stern said. "People are much more aware now of the effects of pesticides and herbicides."
Natural Market customer Cindy Spiess signed Stern's petition as she paid for groceries Friday afternoon. She worked at the farm when it was run by the Navy and appreciates having so much organic acreage protected.
"We'd rather have it organic because it's healthier," she said.
Fry said he'll meet with neighbors and a local civic group today to explain his move from organic to conventional farming.
Anne Arundel County officials will hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Arundel Baptist Church — across the street from the farm — to discuss the property.
Fry said he plans to use herbicide to attack weeds he hasn't been able to eliminate with organic methods. And he plans to use synthetic fertilizer on the crops, as the soil is already rich in phosphorus, making phosphorus-laden animal manure — the organic practice — no longer the best choice under new state rules.
He said he doesn't have immediate plans to use pesticides and will use environmentally friendly practices such as no-till farming and planting seeds that are not genetically modified.
"I think a lot of the things we're doing to the land will be better for the land in the long run," Fry said.
He doesn't rule out returning to organic farming in the future, noting that on a larger farm his family operates on the Eastern Shore, he's switched some fields between organic and conventional practices.
A vegetable plot on the Gambrills farm that's part of a community-supported agriculture program and that produces food for local markets will remain organic. Farm employee Virginia Gambrell said that plot just passed its latest organic certification inspection.
"We're organic farmers at heart," she said. "It's such a struggle for us to be profitable."
Opponents see the lease negotiations as a way to mandate organic practices — either with the Frys or someone else.
County Executive Laura Neuman said she's an "avid believer" in organic farming. But she said no one has offered to farm the whole property with organic means, and it's important to keep a tenant on the land.
"The county doesn't have the resources to manage the entire property," she said.
Karen Cook, the county's chief administrative officer, said the county is offering the Frys a lease of two years and 11 months — the longest term possible without needing approval from the County Council.
That distinction is important — Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who represents the area, wants a long-term lease with the Frys or someone else to operate the farm organically. He said if such a lease was presented to the council stipulating organic methods, members would support it.
"It seems like the administration is doing its best to keep from having to come before the County Council," Benoit said.
Previous one-year leases for Maryland Sunrise Farm have not required organic farming. Cook said in the future the county could consider leasing to another tenant who pledged to farm organically, but said Fry has been "a very good steward of the land."
"We certainly understand how important organic is to the community," Cook said. "The administration's position is if in the next couple years there's an organic farmer who will step up and farm the land … We'd be interested in continuing that."
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