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

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.

"Alpacas are small, gentle and unaggressive," Mattingly said. "They have soft feet and don't tear up the land. And they're efficient eaters." She is interested in fiber arts, so they are an especially good fit.

Because alpaca farming is a business, there are considerable tax advantages, but unlike some financial investments, alpacas are insurable. It's more than that, though.

"They like to be near you, but they are not touchy-feely," Mattingly said. "They are respectful of personal space." Their meat is not eaten in North America, another "plus" for her. And shearing them is not only good for the fleece they produce but also benefits the animals' health.

And so Hermione (remember "Harry Potter"), Trifecta ("a winner" and the third brown baby of the season) and George (he's curious) quietly survey the scene, while Angelique, Carina, and Hope munch away.

A trip to the farms of St. Mary's County is not your everyday getaway. The farmers invite you into their homes and lives, and we found them eager to share their personal dedication, their concern over the fragility of life and their respect for the earth's bounty.

They'll remind you that nature is not always pretty, the notion of a peaceable kingdom is overly romantic and survival of the fittest is not just a phrase. But you'll return home knowing that these people are living the good life in St. Mary's County.

If you go

Getting there

St. Mary's County, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay, is a two-hour drive from Baltimore, approximately 85 miles.

Lodging

The Inn at Brome Howard, 301-866-0656, BromeHoward.com. A quiet waterside retreat, this 19th-century house, on the grounds of Historic St. Mary's City, backs on the St. Mary's River and is surrounded by gardens. Guest rooms are spacious and the service is commendable.

Woodlawn Farm Bed & Breakfast, 301-872-0555, http://www.woodlawn-farm.com. With great views of the Potomac River, guests can choose cottage suites or lodgings in the late-18th-century mansion. An on-location winery is an additional attraction.

Dining

Cafe des Artistes, 41655 Fenwick St., Leonardtown, 301-997-0500, cafedesartistes.ws. Owned and operated by chef Loic Francois Jaffres, this local landmark is worth the trip. Call ahead to see if bison is on the menu; enjoy local wines with your meal.

Brewing Grounds, 41658 Fenwick St., Lenoardtown, 301-475-8040,.gobrewinggrounds.com. Breakfast, lunch, just a cup of joe? This Leonardtown institution does what the big chains do, only better.

Don't miss

Allen Homestead, 18988 Point Lookout Road, Park Hall, 301-862-3421, http://www.home.earthlink.net/~allensarticles/index.htm. Heritage turkeys, an art studio, freshly grown food, and more. Call for appointment.

Summerseat Farm, 26655 Three Notch Road, Mechanicsville, 301-884-0500, summerseat.org. A working farm with a variety of animals, including bison. House tours and special events are also offered here. Call for appointment.

Nobella Alpacas, 40280 Wathen Road, Leonardtown, 240-925-6959, nobellaalpacas.com. Chat with Patty and Marty Mattingly, check out the alpacas, and purchase related products. Call for appointment.

Port of Leonardtown Winery, 23190 Newtowne Neck Road, Leonardtown, 301-884-3086, portofleonardtown.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday, this winery was the first agricultural co-op of its kind in Maryland, offering tours, tastings, and special events. Wine made from grapes grown at Summerseat Farm is sold here.

North End Gallery, 41652 Fenwick St., Leonardtown, 301-475-3130, northendgallery.org. Christina Allen of Allen Homestead is among the many talented local artists who exhibit in this eclectic gallery. Open daily except Mondays.

Land O'Lakes Farm, 301-373-5858, buffalodick@md.metrocast.net. Dick Wildes sells bison meat at this Hollywood farm. Call ahead.

Information

For more information on visiting Southern Maryland, go to visitstmarysmd.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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