During the spring and early summer, Mark Fleischmann, the co-owner of Misty Valley Farms, must rise well before dawn each day and drive to Maryland's Eastern Shore — then turn around and drive right back to Cockeysville on the same morning.
The trip is necessary to keep the three produce stands that Fleischmann and his wife, Sally, operate in the Towson area each summer stocked with freshly picked, locally grown corn and other seasonal produce in the months before their own farm, in Hampstead, yields crops large enough to stock their shelves. In the case of corn, that's not until mid-July.
The Fleischmanns operate a large, permanent produce stand at the northwest corner of Shawan and Falls roads, in Cockeysville, along with two other temporary stands set up out of the back of pickup trucks — one on Ruxton Road, across from the interchange with I-83, and one on Greenside Drive, near the Baltimore County Public Library, also in Cockeysville.
The Falls Road stand stays open through the winter holidays by selling Christmas trees, decorated wreaths and centerpieces. The Ruxton stand operates full time into October while the Greenside Drive stand switches to weekends only after Labor Day.
Each morning beginning in May, Mark, 47, fetches corn, squash and seedless watermelons, and cantaloupes from Wings Landing Farms, in Caroline County. He's usually back by mid-morning, though his day is hardly finished by then.
He works at least until closing time at any of the three stands — 7 p.m. on weekdays and an hour earlier on Saturday and Sunday — and sometimes even later, despite knowing that the next day begins with a 4 a.m. wake-up before hitting the road back to the Eastern Shore.
"It's really the toughest time of the year for me," Mark said. "They [his colleagues at Wings Landing Farms] started pulling corn on June 14 and we'll start pulling our own corn on about July 15. I won't have to get up until 5:30 a.m., so it will be a lot easier then. It's this first month [of the season] that is really busy for me."
The Fleischmanns' customers, who travel from all over the Baltimore metropolitan area to patronize the stands, seem to appreciate the effort. Especially on weekends, customers flock to the stands to peruse and purchase a bounty of beans, corn, squash, spring onions, potatoes, asparagus, beets, tomatoes, melons, peaches, blueberries and strawberries.
Sandra Little makes the trek from Catonsville once a week to buy corn and tomatoes from the Fleischmanns.
"Everything here is good — and it's dependable," she said on a recent visit to the Falls Road stand. "You won't ever get anything bad here."
A leap of faith
Mark, a native of a Stewartstown, Pa., who, unlike his wife, did not grow up on a farm, started selling produce from the back of a truck on Cranbrook Road, in Timonium, while he was a student at Kennard-Dale High School, in Fawn Grove, Pa.
He eventually bought that business from the owner and expanded it to the Falls Road site in 1992, where he leases 2 acres of land. Seven years later, he and Sally made a leap of faith by buying an 8-acre farm in Hampstead, in Carroll County, at auction for $410,000.
"I just happened to see an ad in The [Baltimore] Sun for the farm auction," Mark said. "We had just five days to get ready for the auction."
Their first foray into selling their own produce came from a bumper crop of pumpkins they culled from a field on the Hampstead land on which cattle had grazed. The couple, who met in the mid-1980s while attending what is now Towson University, grew some massive squash on the land that fall.
"That was our first big crop," Sally, 49, said with a chuckle. "The field was well-fertilized, and we grew some really big pumpkins."
Nearly 20 years later, their summertime business is still thriving, including their latest venture, which is another stand near where Sally grew up, in Crofton, in Anne Arundel County that opened in the spring of 2016.
The Fleischmanns, along with their five children — ages 9 to 20 — and 25 seasonal and three year-round employees are at their busiest this time of year.
"Come Mother's Day, people are chomping at the bit for fresh produce," said Sally, who credits Mark for being the brains behind the building of the business.
"I'm pretty proud of Mark," she said. "He has a good eye for the big picture. The retail end takes a lot of time, and farming takes a lot of patience."
Buying at the Misty Valley stands is a decidedly low-tech experience, with no credit cards to swipe or computer chips to insert. Cash is king, although checks — and even an occasional IOU — are acceptable at the stands.
Hunt Valley resident David Vaeth said that he and his dog, Teddy, drop by the Falls Road stand about four times a week to buy strawberries and tomatoes.
"I've been coming here for about five years," said the Loyola Blakefield graduate, who works in Internet technology. "The people are friendly and the produce is excellent. In about a week, they'll have really good peaches, too."
Robert Ellis, of Catonsville, happened to be in the area on a recent day when he dropped by the Falls Road stand, he said, adding that a recent heart attack inspired him to "drastically" change his diet.
"Instead of having a sandwich for lunch, I'll have fruit," said Ellis, who has lost 22 pounds in the process. "Instead of having canned vegetables with my dinner, I'll have fresh vegetables."
Lutherville resident Marie Frederick isn't picky about which of the Misty Valley Farms stands she frequents.
"I was at Hunt Valley mall today, so I came to this one [on Falls Road]," she said while eyeing a short-lived two-for-one deal on $5 pints of strawberries. "I usually go to Ruxton Road, but I'll go to any of the three."
The Falls Road site is situated between attorney Lee Snyder's home in Pikesville and his Hunt Valley office, he said.
"It's exactly what it looks like here," Snyder said. "The people here are lovely. They'll help you pick out a ripe cantaloupe, one that you may not want to eat for a day or two. I pass here often enough and I stop to get fresh stuff. It's perfect."
Although they have plenty of happy customers, the Fleischmanns say they don't believe in resting on their laurels. They are always trying to improve what they do.
"I never feel like I know enough," Sally said. "We're constantly trying to pick the brains of other farmers for tips."
Mark said that he is motivated by the joy of working for himself.
"I'm kind of high-strung and I have to have things done in a certain way," he said.
One of Misty Farms employees, Diana Guthall, said she finds many benefits to the job of selling produce, which she has held for eight years.
"I love my office," she said pointing to the striped tent-like structure under which most of the produce is displayed at the Fall Road site "What's not to love? I'm close to home [in Parkton], the customers are wonderful and the Fleischmanns are great to work for."