Brisk trade in pumpkins, hayrides, despite damaged crop

As Jamie Brown shifts his gaze upward and squints at a pair of tall barns backed by a cloudless October sky, the reverence in his voice is nearly as clear as the autumn sun's rays.

All around him at Triadelphia Lake View Farm, families are taking advantage of an unusually pretty day to pet farm animals, take hayrides and pick pumpkins.

Layers of peeling red paint on the barns distinguish the two oldest structures on the 100-acre Glenelg farm at the end of meandering Triadelphia Road. The property has been in the Brown family since 1896.

"Those two buildings will never come down," says Brown, who at age 38 believes he's one of the youngest farmers in Howard County.

Though the barns have seen better days, they're original to the farm and the family plans to hire Amish workers to refurbish them. But the $100,000 cost is not within reach now, he said.

Brown takes his responsibility seriously as the sixth generation to tend this land, which his parents, Jimmy and Linda Brown, named in the mid-1970s after nearby Triadelphia Reservoir. But the weather extremes this year have been enough to unnerve even the most dedicated farmer.

"The month of wet weather that we just had has pretty much ruined the pumpkins," Brown said, though he raised plenty of miniature ones for children to pick on school field trips, which bring needed income and exposure to the farm. The current pumpkin crop represents his second planting this year, after the first shriveled because of lack of rain.

As he surveyed his land, families were happily taking bumpy hayrides along the rutted wagon path to the 7-acre pumpkin patch, where a thick growth of vines conceals the lack of orange squash.

Chris Pereira of Fulton brought her daughters Sophie and Bella to pick a "pimply pumpkin … one of the real ugly ones" and to take a hayride and soak up the wide-open spaces. Linda Brown told them as she weighed their selection that the variety is called Knucklehead, "named for all the warts it grows," and Pereira nodded and smiled, satisfied with her find, she said, and the fun farm experience.

But Brown sees what visitors can't: The crop is down 60 percent after 13 record-setting inches of rain in September, on top of the deluges that fell in August. The 800 acres of hay he presides over have also been affected, as hay must be dried by the sun before it can be baled for delivery as far away as Florida.

"This has been the most adverse weather year I can remember," he said.

Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural marketing specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the heavy rainfall and lack of sunshine has made this a year "when county farmers have not necessarily been able to get the crops off the field in a timely fashion or sell what they have as Grade A."

"The severe amount of rain over the past two months has knocked down cornfields and hayfields, [flattening them] to the point where they couldn't be harvested," she said. And that came on the heels of a drought, when seeds didn't germinate or pollinate in some cases.

"The weather has played a huge factor this year," she said.

Pumpkins mean much more than jack-o'-lanterns or pie to the Browns. They signal the start of the holiday season and a banked-on increase in sales — of meats, poultry, eggs, cider, jams, salsas and more. And for the first time, the farm is mingling Christmas and Halloween crafts on the same table, eager to get a running start on recouping the profits the weather snatched away.

"We figure if the stores are getting their Christmas stuff in, why can't we?" he said. "Our fall always blends right into our Christmas tree season anyway. When people come for pumpkins, we introduce them to our other products and try to entice them to return in December."

Brown said all farms feel threatened by a formidable foe these days — the economy. The main weapon that farmers have in their arsenals is diversification, he said.

His parents decided in 1983 to sell their 90 dairy cows because upkeep was too expensive and a few years later concentrated on growing and selling produce. When the Oakland Mills farmers' market debuted in 1989, the Browns signed up. They still sell at many area farmers' markets.

"My parents feel lucky to have diversified early," Brown said. "Some farmers are forced to sell their farms in order to finance their retirement."

The payment Brown's parents received for granting permission for the 500-foot cellphone tower that looms over the outbuildings "is what really saved the farm," he said. Initially erected in 1982 to improve pager reception in the area, he said, it couldn't have come at a better time for his family.

Zimmerman said she encourages farmers to regard their farms as the corporations they really are.

"I ask them to start thinking more about running their farms like a business and to concentrate on marketing to stay competitive," she said.

Farmers are searching for a niche as a backup plan, Brown says.

"Everyone has done something different to support themselves," he said. "We aren't competing with each other, though. We all want everyone to succeed."

That's why Triadelphia Lake View Farm sells Bowling Green Farm's cheeses, for example, which are made for the Sykesville farm from its cows' milk, Brown said. Extra income softens the blows that farming sustains year after year, but is especially needed during a recession, when some consumers regard fresh farm products as luxuries they can't afford.

All farmers are asking is that residents support their efforts to supply locally grown food — which people say they want — instead of patronizing places where products are shipped in, Brown said.

Buying fresh instead of fake Christmas trees also helps, he said. The farm offers cut-your-own trees, but he has also ordered Frasier firs from North Carolina because the popular species doesn't thrive in Maryland.

"How can you afford not to eat locally grown foods? If consumers don't support their local farmers, we're going to have to sell off our land for condos," he said. "Farming is where my heart has always been. I just don't want to see that happen."

He pauses, surveying the crowd that had turned out on one of the few days without rain that the county has seen in several weeks.

Near the parking lot, under the watchful eyes of six scarecrows wearing plaid flannel and denim and a seventh dressed in a wedding gown, Lillian Nguyen lets her eldest, Anya, take a swig of chilled cider right from the jug as her brothers, Kai and Teo, await their turn.

"We come here twice a year, fall and Christmas," the Dayton resident said, since her 8-year-old daughter was a toddler.

"That's exactly what we want to hear — people who are making it a tradition to buy their pumpkins, Christmas trees and other produce from their local farm," Brown said. "That's how we'll survive."

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