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Harford Farmer of the Year 'Brownie' Pearce reflects on his career

Wilbur Brown Pearce has farming in his blood.

"All of my ancestors had been farmers. My mother and father grew up on farms, " Pearce, known to his friends as "Brownie," said. "But neither of them acquired an interest in farming."

Pearce did acquire an interest, though. He was a farmer for close to 40 years in Perryman, and also has been active in the Harford County community and with assisting other farms. On Saturday, Nov. 10, Pearce was recognized for his efforts when the Harford County Farm Bureau named him as Farmer of the Year.

Pearce's mother was a teacher and his father sold feed and farm supplies while raising him in Sparks.

Pearce studied agriculture at the University of Maryland for two years, and then enlisted in the Air Force. It was while he was in the Air Force that he married Elizabeth Mitchell in 1955, and the two lived together in an apartment at Andrews Air Force Base. He was able to end his tour of duty 90 days early to finish his college studies, and he graduated from the University of Maryland in 1958.

From there, his farming career began. He and his wife moved to Perryman, where he started working as a farmer for the company belonging to his wife's family, F.O. Mitchell and Bros Inc., which canned vegetables.

"Mitchell's was a success in the canning business because they produced a quality product," Pearce said. "I learned from that what quality is all about."

Pearce helped diversify his part of the canning business into small grain crops other than corn.

"I've always loved farming," Pearce said. "I was glad to get the opportunity to come here and be part of [The Mitchells'] operation, and glad to have the opportunity to expand it."

Conservation started early

Pearce also grew certified seed for the agricultural cooperative Southern States. For his seeds to qualify for certification, state inspectors had to come to Pearce's farm to make sure the seeds were pure and free from weeds, diseases and other defects.

"That helped you be a better farmer," Pearce said. "[The seeds] had to be good quality because they had to buy it and send it to other farmers."

Even after the canning business ended, Pearce continued to farm field corn and soybeans. He engaged in soil conservation practices on his farm, which he is still proud of.

"We established waterways that are still used today," Pearce said. Those same waterways passed tests showing that they were free from any of the herbicides Pearce was using on his farm.

"It was evidence that we were doing a good job with soil conservation," Pearce said. "During your lifetime, if you improve things that have continued on, that's an accomplishment."

In addition to the waterways, Pearce also used "good nutrient management practices" in fertilizing his farm's soil, which was unusual at the time.

"Years ago, you bought 10 nitrogen, 10 phosphorus and 10 potash, and you spread that out everyplace," Pearce said. "If you didn't need phosphorus [or any other ingredients], you got it anyway."

Today, phosphorus, even in small quantities, is known to have detrimental effects in bodies of water, as it pollutes the water and causes more algae to grow, which in turn hurts fish populations. More phosphorus used on farmer's fields leads to it being included in runoff, which would flow into local bodies of water, like the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.

Pearce's farm became, according to him, the first in the area to have a blender, a tool that blended fertilizers to nutrient specifications that suited the needs of individual fields.

"With our blender, we didn't put phosphorus in the fields that didn't need it," Pearce said. "We were way ahead of the pull on nutriment management."

The blender also was economically beneficial to Pearce and his farm.

"Having our blender allowed us to provide what the individual fields' needed," Pearce said. "We were saving money by not putting nutrients the fields didn't need."

All of this came from someone who by his own admission struggled with chemistry as a college student.

"It took me four semesters to get through two semesters of college chemistry," Pearce laughs.

Pearce also managed other farms, including one farm in Havre de Grace owned by John Kenney, a Washington attorney. When Kenney's farm manager died unexpectedly during harvest season, a good friend of Pearce's told him to go to Kenney and offer to help harvest.

Kenney agreed, and Pearce was happy to assist. He took over managing the farm, and continued to do so even after Kenney died in 1992 and left the farm to Johns Hopkins University in his will. Pearce continued to farm the land on the university's behalf until 1994, when the farm, today known as Swan Harbor Farm, was purchased by Harford County.

"We farmed a lot of land, we did a good job and people knew that we would do a good job," Pearce said.

Lots of stories

Pearce's years of farming included many events that were, to say the least, very interesting. One such instance occurred when Pearce was farming for the canning business.

One of the company's trucks was transporting grain from the farm in Perryman to Hanover in Baltimore County. As the truck passed over a drawbridge in Baltimore city, the bridge came up, causing the grain to spill and the truck to flip over.

"I learned that Baltimore city doesn't pay damages," Pearce said. "Two cars run into each other, too bad. Two trucks run into each other, too bad. A truck flips over, too bad."

Pearce unsuccessfully fought the city in court. He later found out that accident happened because two hydraulic locks on the bridge weren't enabled.

"Not many farmers have had a truck flip over on a drawbridge," Pearce said.

Another event was a little more serious.

In 2001, a local man whom Pearce knew came to the farm brandishing a handgun looking for Pearce. When a truck driver drove by and saw the man, the man fired at the truck. The situation became rather serious when the man decided to hold Pearce hostage inside his own home.

The man, Carl Sexton, wanted to stop the war in Afghanistan and wanted to deliver his message to the public. Pearce decided to call his friend Jim McMahan, who at the time owned radio station WAMD-AM in Aberdeen, to see if Sexton would be willing to go on the radio. Sexton initially agreed, but then changed his mind and wanted to get on television. McMahan these days is retired from radio and a member of the Harford County Council.

The arrival of Harford County sheriff's deputies didn't help matters.

"The sheriffs came in their little tank, and Carl shot at them through our window," Pearce said. One of the bullets struck a patrol car, and another struck Pearce's garage. A bullet hole is still there today.

A series of phone calls by McMahan to local TV stations proved fruitless, as they refused to put Sexton on TV. Finally, Pearce was connected to Richard Sher, then at WJZ-TV.

"How can I help you?" Sher asked Pearce.

"I said, 'You don't know me, but I'm in a difficult situation,' " Pearce said. "I've got a shotgun pointed at me."

Sher agreed to put Sexton on the 5 p.m. news, and after seeing the broadcast, Sexton surrendered.

"Through Richard Sher's efforts in putting [Sexton] on the 5 o'clock news, everything worked out happily ever after," Pearce said, chuckling. "After that, we lived fairly peacefully."

Selling the farm

In 2000, Pearce decided to sell most of the farmland to Rite Aid, which built a distribution center on the property.

"Our family didn't want to continue [farming]," Pearce said. "They couldn't keep up the lifestyle that they wanted."

With the farmland mostly gone, Pearce decided to go in a different direction. He took the soil that was removed during construction of the distribution center and started a topsoil business that he runs today.

"My topsoil is different from everybody else's because it's good topsoil," Pearce said.

"The tax people keep telling me that I don't make enough to cover my depreciates, but enough to cover my expenses," Pearce laughs.

Despite his age, Pearce shows no sign of letting up, and is grateful that farming doesn't consume all of his time.

"I'm 78 and a half and still going," Pearce said. "I've just gotten to the point that I can take off, and if my granddaughter has Grandparents Day, I can go do it. I couldn't do it when I was a farmer."

Despite the end of his farming career, Pearce still takes an active interest in the community

"I may not be actively farming, but I'm still regularly involved in helping make local decisions for the land," Pearce said.

Over the years, Pearce has been very active with many local organizations, including serving on the Harford County Planning Advisory Board, serving as chairman of the Maryland Outstanding Young Farmers and serving as director for Columbian Bank.

"The biggest honor was being on the board of the farm bureau, and being president of the farm bureau," Pearce said.

In earlier days, Pearce said, all of the farm bureaus members were full-time farmers.

"Today, it's not that way anymore," Pearce said. "It's hard [for farmers] to get away and devote their time to other things."

Pearce encourages area farmers to get involved with the Harford County Farm Bureau.

"I've stressed to Tom Adams, who farmed our land, that he has to be a involved with the farm bureau," Pearce said. "It helps you keep abreast of the changing laws."

"There are so many government regulations today and so many people who want to 'help' you manage your operations," Pearce added, laughing.

Pearce considers himself an advocate for farmers, but recognizes the need for development as well.

"We need to preserve good farmland, but we don't need to preserve good farmland in the development envelope, " Pearce said.

Looking back, he credits his success to those who helped him along the way.

"Although in my lifetime I've worked pretty hard, I've had a lot of people help me," Pearce said. "Friends have helped throughout my whole life, and I appreciate that."

"We always tried to do the right thing, and be good members of the community," Pearce added. "Being chosen [for the award] is a mark of our participation in the community."

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