A second straight winter of unnaturally warm weather so far in Central Maryland is extending the life of a handful of crops at one Howard County farm and forcing a rite of spring to occur early.
Only last week on the rolling pastures of Sharp's at Waterford Farm in Brookeville, lambs cavorted near their mothers. Ears of viable popcorn lay scattered amid flattened, yellowed cornstalks. Nearby, brussels sprouts remained ripe for the picking.
Still, even in the mildest of these colder months, farm-fresh foods remain scarce.
The Howard County Conservancy has something of an answer. Meet Our Local Farmers, a free event open to the public that showcases the local agricultural scene, is scheduled for 2 p.m. today at the private, nonprofit organization in Woodstock.
"We couldn't do something like this in season because our farmers are going in so many directions," said Meg Boyd, the conservancy's executive director.
"But people are already starting to sign up for CSAs [community-supported agriculture], so we thought we'd lay out the ways we can all support our local farmers."
The event also will feature a panel discussion on farming and a question-and-answer session. Some participating farms will bring produce for a mini-farmers' market.
Denise Sharp, co-owner of Sharp's Farm, sees the event as a way for farmers and potential customers to become acquainted.
"It's basically an open house where people can come around and visit and ask questions," Sharp said.
"A lot of people are so disconnected to agriculture that they have no idea who their local farmers are."
Five other Howard farms will be represented: Bowling Green Farm and Breezy Willow Farm, both located in Sykesville; Clark's Elioak Farm in Clarksville; Gorman Farm in Laurel; and Love Dove Farms in Woodbine. Zahradka Farm, located in Baltimore County, will also take part.
Boyd said the event aligns with the conservancy's recent focus on programming relating to sustainable agriculture. The organization has held talks on such topics as more healthful school foods, and each fall offers a harvest dinner with a menu made up entirely of locally grown and raised foods.
"We want to provide information to help people make healthier food choices," Boyd said.
Even though produce stands and farmers' markets may seem like only a memory at this time of year, local farmers haven't slowed down.
The handwritten plaque on the entrance sign for Sharp's may read "HIBERNATING," but that's hardly the case. Tasks like audits, seed orders, soil testing and fencing repairs make offseason days as grueling as the peak days of summer, just in a different way.
"Perishable products are a hard way to make money," said Sharp, who co-owns the 550-acre farm with her retired husband, Chuck, and now operates it with their son, Alan.
"Even in the winter, we're lucky if we can take Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off together."
Thriving at Sharp's, in an unheated greenhouse called a high tunnel, are the darkest-green kale, healthy chard and cilantro.
One 3-year-old kale plant, which Sharp calls "a testament to global warming," is still going strong, leading her to joke that she may consider adorning it with Christmas lights next year if it keeps growing.
Outside the high tunnel, vines of rosemary spill out over dozens of clay pots protected by cold frames — plastic-covered enclosures built low to the ground. Mint, rhubarb and lavender seedlings appear equally robust under the frames' hinged lids.
"These plants love this [wet and warmer] weather, since they're dormant in winter and it's all about root growth," she said.
The 25-degree weather more common in winter is tougher to deal with, Sharp said, although the recent unseasonable temperatures do have a drawback.
"We farmers would like it to be a little colder for controlling the insect population," which could be higher in spring as a result, she said.
Dave Liker, a transplanted Californian who co-owns and operates Gorman Farm with his wife, Lydia, said demand for fresh produce in Maryland is the No. 1 reason he became convinced that operating an organic farm in the Mid-Atlantic region presented a great opportunity.
Accustomed in his previous life in Santa Barbara to a year-round growing season with near-flawless conditions, he has discovered as he heads into his fifth season on the East Coast that winter is just as busy as summer.
"Sure, you can wear sweatpants and keep your PJs on a little longer in the morning, but there's a lot to do," he said, later ticking off an offseason to-do list: maintaining equipment, hiring seasonal labor, recalibrating expenses, analyzing last year's books.
"Winter, in a nutshell, involves making crucial management decisions [for the coming summer] out of context."
Liker, 37, says he enjoys attending events like Meet Our Local Farmers to get his operation's name out there.
"We are still doing our best to get our feet on the ground and trying to find our niche in the community," he said. "We have a wonderful location; now we need that sweet spot."
Martha Anne Clark, owner of Clark's Elioak Farm, said county residents' interest in locally grown food is nearly insatiable.
"It's amazing how much our customers are interested in learning about the foods they buy," she said.
"And I believe we have an obligation to teach as we sell."
With 70 people now working plots in the conservancy's community garden, which opened four years ago, Boyd knows firsthand that a common interest in growing and eating local foods exists in the county.
"Sharing gardening ideas with each other truly builds a community," she said.
The Howard County Conservancy will host Meet Our Local Farmers, beginning at 2 p.m. today at the organization's headquarters, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock. The event is free. Call 410-465-8877.