For Triple Creek Farm, a struggle to maintain 'land and legacy' in changing times

This is the first in a series of stories looking at farming in western Howard County.

Clad in jeans and a salmon, button-down shirt, Teresa Stonesifer stands several feet from Midnight, as the cow rests in the green pastures of her farm. Stonesifer says she can feel her ears perk up.


"She's been down. But I know she's okay," said Stonesifer. "I can feel it."

The dark black cow is related to one of Stonesifer's first cows as a child, also named Midnight. One of her fondest memories is coddling that Midnight as a little girl when her father brought her to the barn.


"It didn't matter whose it was. Midnight was mine."

Stonesifer hopes naming Midnight after her predecessor brings the farm full circle across generations and preserves the family history of the farm.

"A lot of people have no idea of the heartaches that we go through on a daily basis. The blood, sweat and tears that go into farming. It's bred into you," said Stonesifer.

Almost 25 percent of the total land area in Howard County – nearly 161,000 acres – is farmland. Agriculture, an industry farmers say is changing and evolving, is among the top five industries in the county, according to data from the Howard County Farm Bureau. The county's 318 farms average roughly 125 acres.


At Triple Creek Farm, a green expanse of rolling terrain on 97 acres in West Friendship, owners Stonesifer and her sister, Denise Dixon, struggle to hold on to the life, land and legacy of their family farm.

Passed down through generations since 1934, the farm has been protected under the county's farmland preservation program since 1989. But its owners, part of the aging ranks of farmers in the county and throughout the state, wonder how long it will last.

Sustaining the life of the farm means embracing what is now a new normal for farmers in the county: taking on a second — or third — job to maintain the land and the legacy.

From the late 1980s, Stonesifer owned a small school bus company and worked the land when she wasn't ferrying children to schools. She now works full time as "weigh master" at the county's landfill to take advantage of health benefits after her husband, Gary, hurt his back in 1989 and is now physically disabled.

"He used to have good days, but now those good days don't come anymore," said Stonesifer.

Dixon, divorced twice, juggles two jobs as an in-house hair dresser and babysitter along with a job with the county's nutritional services.

It's a challenge Dixon is willing to meet head-on to maintain the legacy of the land that has been in her family for generations.

"I'm fighting to keep it this way. I will do anything to keep this land," she said. "It's my life. It's everything I've ever known. This is a way of life. It's not a job. It's not a chore. It's what I do."

A breast cancer diagnosis last December left Stonesifer scrambling to make ends meet. Although doctors cleared Stonesifer, the looming fear still exists: Will another health challenge put the farm in limbo?

The average farmer in Maryland is 59 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's five-year census of agriculture.

"We're getting older and the work isn't getting any easier," said Stonesifer, 52.

Losing legacy

In Maryland, Delaware, South Carolina and West Virginia, more farmers are taking up farming as a part-time venture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But even this supplemental income isn't enough to make ends meet, Stonesifer says. On an average year, the farm ends in the red. Each crop on the farm's cropshare earns her $2,000 to $4,000 a year, a revenue source quickly wiped out by a bi-yearly cost of nearly $800 to fill a fuel tank beside the barn, she says.

This year was especially cumbersome. Her profit for the year - three calves - died in April.Her cattle, whittled down from the glory days where dozens roamed the grass, are few in number.

The farm began a cropshare seven years ago on 25 acres, most of which is an expanse of wheat that rolls gently in the winds. Now, 40 acres are dedicated to the cropshare with J. David Mullinix and Sons, a large operating farm in Dayton. The family is also considering agrotourism and renting off a part of their land to solar companies, if allowed under county law, to supplement their income as part of a growing, economically viable trend in the county.

Upkeep required to stay up to date with state regulations related to nutrient management and soil conservation is a constant challenge. A row of mismatched gates fence off parts of a water trough on the land. A rutted field worn by erosion slopes down at the entrance of the property. The owners also worry the expansion of Route 32 will mean losing part of their land to the state.

"We've patched things up for so many years, you wonder how long it'll last," said Dixon.

As bits and pieces of the land take on new forms and the front field falls to erosion, Stonesifer said she wonders if the legacy of the land will be lost in the search for new income.

"You're not going to be able to feed a family off a farm, especially living in Howard County. You need supplemental income to keep farming around," said Stonesifer. "But now that we have that income, you wonder: is it really enough?"

Their hopes for the future of the farm rest on the shoulders of Dixon's 12-year-old daughter, Sam. Stonesifer points to her niece's tall frame as she clomps over in the mud to feed her pigs after school, running what she calls "the appetite express."

Sam holds up one of her cattle, Cassanova, and ties her to a post, telling her it's okay if she doesn't like it. She figures she'll make money off the cattle to pay for feed if she takes over the farm several years down the road.

"The future of the farm is what you see in front of you. It's all her," she said of Sam. "Maybe my son will have grandchildren and when I'm a grandmom, I will know."

The owners hope Sam will bring new ideas to the farm.

Stonesifer's son, Eric, who also lives on the farm with his wife, helps around regularly, but is not entrenching in the farming life.

Looking back, Stonesifer wonders if she made the right decision to keep the farm when her mother died three years ago.

"I just hope and pray I didn't make the mistake to keep the farm versus selling our land to be able to take care of our families better," said Stonesifer. "I just hope and pray."

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