Organic farmer hopes to grow business

Another article in a series about the people and the jobs that define a Maryland summer.

The building is a rustic, three-sided corrugated metal number, its contents a local food-lover's dream.

Heirloom tomatoes, obscure orange-fleshed honeydews, peppers in every color of the rainbow but blue — nearly everything grown organically and on the premises — fill the Howard County farm stand that Dave and Lydia Liker started two years ago quite by accident.

It is the sort of place that, in the midst of summer's bounty, makes people believers: in life without mealy supermarket tomatoes; in ecologically friendly food systems; in a new generation of farmers; in the wisdom of chucking everything and living a tranquil, purposeful life in agriculture.

All true, except for the tranquil part.

Customers who pull up to bucolic Gorman Farm — one long driveway and a world away from surrounding Laurel subdivisions, removed from the whoosh of Sysco and supermarket trucks on nearby Interstate 95 — would never guess it. But what looks like a soothing oasis from suburban sprawl and industrial eating is, in fact, a high-wire act.

"Friday night, I was sitting on so much food I was sweating bullets, and by Saturday afternoon it was all gone," said Dave Liker, 34, recalling how he phoned a dozen restaurants and offered tomatoes at less than half price when 80 cases of them suddenly ripened all at once. "I'm young. I can handle it. If I was 55 years old, I'd probably be having a heart attack."

Lydia Liker, 30, compares their seed-to-consumer enterprise, vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature, consumer tastes and government regulation, to "a five-dimensional jigsaw puzzle."

"If you have a company and you're producing widgets, you have variables, but not the amount of variables we have," she said.

So much for getting out of the rat race.

The Likers were newlyweds living in Colorado, dabbling in farming at the ranch where Dave was caretaker, when they got the idea to buy a farm of their own. They had been looking at a 700-square-foot condo in the Rockies. For the same price, Dave discovered online, they could buy an organic vegetable, goat and chicken farm in "turn-key" condition in New York, north of the Catskills.

"That's what got us excited," he said.

The idea of farming was not completely out of the blue, though neither Dave nor Lydia came from a farming family.

Dave grew up in Santa Barbara. His father worked in insurance; his mother had a rare-book store. Lydia's father owns Murray Corp., the Hunt Valley maker of hose clamps. Her mother was a docent at the Walters Art Museum.

Dave was working as a rock musician when he got swept up in the organic foods movement. At age 19, he was a drummer in Stegosaurus, a hard rock band. They had a contract with Warner Bros. and a Top 40 hit, "At the Water," in the late 1990s. But he still needed a day job. He managed an organic produce stand in Santa Barbara, Calif., and later wound up growing produce as a caretaker at a ranch in Telluride, Colo. There, he met Lydia, who had worked in restaurants, done freelance writing and taught preschool. Then they saw that New York farm for sale.

They flew out to see the property, loved it and, on the same trip, visited Lydia's parents in White Hall, near One Straw Farm, a well-known organic farm. Her parents, skeptical of the New York farming plan, suggested that they pay a visit to One Straw.

They stopped by unannounced and wound up talking to One Straw farmers Drew and Joan Norman for hours. The Normans convinced them that the New York farm was not a great idea because it was two to three hours away from New York City greenmarkets. Farm where your customers are, they suggested.

The Normans, who've continued to mentor the Likers, also offered marketing advice. One Straw offers a popular community supported agriculture program, known as a CSA, in which customers pay in advance for a season's worth of produce, which they pick up in weekly allotments. The CSA model, Dave said, "made me feel you could make a living in farming."

So in September 2008, the Likers leased 60 acres on Gorman Road in Laurel, land that more than a century ago, was part of a farm belonging to U.S. Sen. Arthur Pue Gorman. The same week they signed the lease, they found out Lydia was pregnant with their first child.

Their daughter, Gioia, arrived June 7, 2009 — a week before their first CSA pickups.

This is their second season there, and they are planting about 10 acres. And while they are not yet making a profit, they are growing a lot of food and luring a lot of cars off Gorman Road and up the long driveway to their farm stand.

The Likers never intended to have the stand. They planned to have a CSA and sell at farmers markets. But as they prepared to take their vegetables to the Annapolis Farmers' Market last year, someone drove up and asked to buy some produce.

Dave sold it to them right off the truck. And then a light bulb went on: Why not have a stand right at the farm? The stand is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They've continued to sell to about a dozen restaurants, at the Annapolis market and through the CSA, which sold out with 130 subscribers this year.

The Likers think farming will get easier, and more profitable, as they go along. The farm stand can be devoid of customers for long stretches, but more people seem to find it every day.

"A thousand times I've driven down this road but I never noticed the sign," said Christy Marshall, a media specialist with Howard County schools, who stopped by the stand last week with her daughters, Ellie, 5, and Katie, 8.

The Likers draw a mix of customers, from dedicated locavores and foodies to those who think of farm stands as a cute summertime destination, an outing on par with a trip to the snowball stand. The former want organic and obscure. The latter, picture-perfect beefsteak tomatoes and corn. The stand caters to both.

Most of the produce is grown organically on the farm, which does not yet have organic certification but follows organic practices. The Likers also offer conventional corn from another Howard County farmer. They also offer plums and yellow and white peaches from Baugher's in Westminster.

"That kind of stuff brings people in," Lydia said. "They're not going to come in for Swiss chard. They get interested and start buying our stuff as well."

In Marshall's case, an unusual fruit and a friend's recommendation drew her to the stand.

"One of my friends was talking about the orange honeydew. Does it taste like honeydew?" she asked the clerk.

It does, she was assured. But there weren't any orange honeydews to sample at that moment. The clerk was giving out tastes of white peaches, and Marshall was sold on those instead. She also bought red cherry tomatoes, which Katie enjoyed so much in the parking lot that her mother had to warn her to save some for lunch. Marshall also picked up some beefsteak tomatoes. She passed on the Cherokee Purples and Brandywines but said she'd be back for some of those.

"I'm curious about the heirlooms," she said. "This is exactly the kind of thing you want to support."

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