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To Ellicott City resident Richard Azzaro, the farm next door had begun to look like "Jurassic Park." A high fence went up, and Azzaro told his wife, "This is way too high for cows."

He monitored the clearing, cutting and cleaning. Then, signs went up — not for luxury homes or genetically revived T. rexes, but for grassfed beef and duck eggs.

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The fence, it turned out, was for keeping out deer.

The farm behind the fence — Mary's Land — is a new venture for tech entrepreneur Tom Cunningham, his wife, Rosy, and their children, Luis, Maria, Rosy, Lupe, Thomas and Rita.

Unlike most conventional or even organic farms, Mary's Land farmers view it as a system of interlinking ecological relationships — "an orchestra of water, soils, plants, grasses and animals to keep each in balance," says Tom Cunningham, who lives with his family in Ellicott City and purchased the farm in fall 2014.

To "conduct" that orchestra, the farmers are tapping into permaculture practices to create sustainable agricultural ecosystems, and they're educating eaters on those practices through tours, which include a "pizza field" with wedge-shaped plantings of ingredients like herbs, tomatoes and peppers.

"As most residents are, on average, four generations removed from the farm, they don't understand where their food comes from, how it is raised or grown," says Kathy Johnson, agricultural development manager for Howard County Economic Development Authority. "Opportunities to actually visit farms and interact with farmers are a positive for everyone."

Cunningham's path to this place began in boyhood when he spent Saturdays accompanying his father to Southern Pennsylvania to pick up eggs for deliveries. His father, who delivered eggs the morning of the day he died, discouraged him from farming "because it's a big money pit," he says.

For two decades, Cunningham, 48, was a sort of technology farmer, developing and selling several Baltimore-based, internet-related companies. While the family was living near Naples, Fla., Cunningham launched a small egg operation to show his son Luis, then 16, how to incorporate a business, make and record capital expenditures, and understand profits and losses.

Customers began to ask what the Cunninghams fed the birds. At the same time, the children suffered from various allergies, and the Cunninghams were trying to get to the root. Thomas, they discovered, was allergic to soy.

"That opened my eyes to the whole world of what really does go into our food," Cunningham says.

Along with sourcing soy-free chicken feed, he read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Barry Estabrook's "Pig Tales." These motivated him to try something different when creating Mary's Land.

Server farmer to permaculture farmer

The family moved back to Maryland and found their 160-acre farm, part of Charles Carroll's original Doughoregan tract.

A hundred acres were planted with soy, and Cunningham knew that wasn't going to work. But what was?

He reached out to Idaho grazier and grazing researcher Jim Gerrish, author of a couple of farming books in the four-foot stack Cunningham keeps next to his bed. Gerrish helped him understand erosion, the challenges of building fertile soil and the importance of using animals as part of that process.

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Cunningham says that, unintentionally, most soils have been "destroyed by a desire for pristine fields." Rather than working with the land and its contours, neat fields allow water to rush off, creating erosion.

"The soils not eroded have been sterilized by an abundance of chemicals," Cunningham says. "Grazing animals are nonexistent on some farms and on others, they are so densely packed, they destroy the soil below them."

Veteran farmers and permaculture practitioners Mike and Barb Haigwood joined the farm to help create a farmwide permaculture plan. (The Haigwoods' son Lee also joined the farm to run the tractor and work with the animals.)

Permaculture — though not so named — is probably as old as any human who took the time to observe nature's cycles and interrelationships and then adapted himself to those. But the term — a combination of "permanent," "agriculture" and "culture" — is relatively new, coming from Australian permaculturalist Bill Mollison in the late 1970s.

To date, permaculture has mostly been used to create backyard or small "edible forests" that are suited to their location and capture, store and use such things as water and sunlight onsite. Many groups and organizations, including some universities, now offer permaculture design courses, and the practices are slowly making their way into production agriculture.

At Mary's Land, permaculture-inspired berms and swales hold water, rather than allowing it to rush off, swell streams, further erode stream banks and silt up local waters.

The farm crew also planted the berms with perennial fruits, herbs, medicinals and nut trees to take advantage of the water. In time, these will be added to the farm's product offerings. The cattle will also benefit from the shade and better forage when they are pastured among the "alley crops" between the berms.

When this method of farming — combining pastures with tree crops — was added to the U.S. farm census in 2012, only 13 Maryland farms were using it.

Mary's Land animals — Devon cattle, Berkshire pigs, Cornish Cross meat chickens, Rhode Island Red laying hens, Sweet Emily ducks, Katahdin sheep and Kiko goats — enjoy three seasons of regular rotation among different pastures. That translates into fresh food every day, including grasses and weeds for all of them, insects for the birds, and, in time, acorns or other nuts for the pigs. The animals also can be in the pasture, not confined, during the winter, weather permitting.

This is the antithesis of conventional animal farming, where poultry or pigs may be crammed together and are fed a steady diet of grain.

"Animals are only healthy if they are given a clean, healthy environment without the interference of chemicals to allow them to flourish," Cunningham says. "Animals made to eat [feed] corn all day and live suspended above their waste could not make good food."

Throwback, throw-forward

The Cunningham family are not the only ones to suffer allergies, which are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 15 million Americans — roughly 9 million adults and 6 million children — have allergies, including those to food.

Bebe Ferro is one of them. She found she was allergic to chicken eggs and, at the urging of her doctor, wanted to try duck eggs.

Cunningham, who estimates a quarter of the farm's customers have said they have food allergies, showed Ferro, a Lutherville resident, the ducks and their feed.

"I like that he put so much thought into what the ducks eat," Ferro says. "Good in equals good out."

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When neighbor Azzaro first visited, he noticed brilliant indigo buntings perched along a fence. He suspects the birds thrive at Mary's Land because of diverse plantings and lack of pesticides.

He also recognized the Devon cattle from his leather-working apprenticeship at Colonial Williamsburg. Devons, triple-purpose bovines that provide meat, milk and draft power, were "period-correct" in Williamsburg, Azzaro says. He's happy the Cunninghams chose that breed because Devons are accustomed to eating grass. It's a throwback and throw-forward way of farming that he likes.

"That's really where we should be in agriculture," he says.

Though timelines and cycles are longer in perennial agriculture than in technology — it'll be five to seven years before the Cunninghams know whether their permaculture experiment has paid off — farming is much like tech: Both systems seek to create redundancies for flexibility and resilience. If one thing fails, not everything fails.

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