Arundel's largest family farm seeks to join state's growing wine industry

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Polly Pittman clipped nets over the ripening grapes in the vineyard she hopes will ensure that one of Anne Arundel County's oldest family farms continues to have a future.

"Basically, the McMansions start on the other side of these trees," Pittman said. "We think of ourselves as the last frontier of agricultural development in Anne Arundel County."

Nearly three centuries after her ancestors started tilling this hill in Davidsonville, the 550-acre Dodon Farm remains the county's largest working family farm. Yet Dodon Farm is too small to make a profit from growing crops alone. Pittman and her husband, Tom Croghan, embraced the notion that to survive, they must process their produce, whether turning strawberries to jam, milk to ice cream or grapes into wine.

"These old tobacco farms, they're not big enough for a commercial farm," Croghan said. "You really have to do the value-added thing."

Dodon started growing tobacco in 1725, but in the 1960s the family started a journey to find the farm a new identity. They first tried cattle, then horses, then renting some of the 150 acres of fields to other farmers growing soy and corn. Nothing seemed sustainable.

As wine lovers themselves, Pittman and Croghan decided to concentrate on turning Dodon into the county's largest winery, joining a rapidly growing Maryland industry.

The couple immediately encountered what they call "crazy-making" local regulations that more than doubled the cost of an Amish-built "grape barn" to process the wine on site.

"Essentially, they're regulating us just like a big factory, same as Northrop Grumman," Croghan said.

County Council Vice Chairman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Gambrills, co-sponsored legislation to ease those regulations and make it cheaper to convert old tobacco lands into vineyards. The legislation is up for a hearing Monday.

While the bill affects only the Dodon farm for now — hastening its transformation into The Vineyards at Dodon — Walker said it addresses the broader problem he hears from farmers in the rural stretches of his district: Agriculture alone struggles to make money without huge tracts of land.

"That's why the farms in our county are fading," Walker said. "When you talk to the farmers, a lot of them have other things going on — either another business or one of the spouses works a full-time job. It's rare that you see a family just farming."

It's the same story at Dodon: Croghan is a physician and Pittman a university professor. The couple built a home in 2005 on the farm she shares with her six siblings. Her brother, Steuart Pittman Jr., uses part of the land for horses. Several acres are used for growing hay.

About a dozen years ago, the family sold development rights to a state program designed to prevent agricultural land from becoming subdivisions, according to Barbara A. Polito, who directs the agricultural preservation program for Anne Arundel County.

With 10,000 vines in the ground already, Croghan and Pittman say theirs is the largest vineyard in Anne Arundel. The Thanksgiving Farm winery in Harwood and Harness Creek winery in Annapolis grow about a third as many grapes, the couple said.

Anne Arundel County's trio of vineyards are part of a growing Maryland industry experts said is ushered in by loosening liquor regulations and the local food movement that attracts drinkers to state wine.

"The laws have finally caught up to encourage this type of activity in Maryland," said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. "Ten years ago, only the most persistent, and only the ones who had connections, could get a winery open."

Surveys by the Maryland Grape Growers Association found 12 wineries in the state in 2001, then 46 in 2010. The Maryland Wineries Association counts 56 today.

Using facilities at other wineries, Pittman and Croghan have fermented their grapes for the past two seasons. Dodon's first sauvignon blanc should be ready next month. The couple hopes The Vineyards at Dodon will be profitable in a dozen years, just in time for the family farm's 300th anniversary.


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