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Farm holdout can't hold on


On Melvin Upton's 111-year-old farm, change is measured in background noise.

These days, there is the swish of traffic from the highways circling his wheat and sweet potato fields, the rumble of airliners passing overhead and the hammering as yet another housing development sprouts from a former family farm nearby.

Upton, 91, remembers when it was quiet. He was here when New Cut Road was brown dust, when Route 100 and Interstate 97 were dreams not yet planted in planners' minds, when part of the nearby farmland that is now Baltimore-Washington International Airport was a large strawberry patch.

For 30 years, Upton and his two brothers, Calvin, 78, and Ridgely, 84, rebuffed the real estate agents who knocked on the doors of their tidy, white houses on their Severn farm. They said no, even when agents dangled enormous payoffs before them, even after a tractor accident last year slowed Melvin Upton down, even when everyone around them was saying yes.

Then one day last winter, the Upton brothers - sole owners of the farm who make all decisions together - changed their minds. Sell half the farm now, they reasoned, and the other two brothers would face less of an inheritance tax burden when one of them dies.

"This farm, all of it, is our retirement," Upton said. "We're all getting very close to what you would call passing-away time."

Bids for the Uptons' 24 acres came in higher than expected. Nine have been received, and the highest was $1.7 million.

But Upton said he is inclined to sell the land to the lowest bidder - his neighbor, Archbishop Spalding High School. Although neither Upton nor school officials will disclose the bid, both sides say the 910-student school is offering something more valuable than price: a promise not to build houses.

Spalding wants to use the land for athletic fields, particularly freshman soccer, lacrosse and girls' softball. The school also wants to expand.

But school President Michael Murphy hopes Spalding prevails for a less selfish reason. He, too, is rankled by all the developments that seem to crop up daily. In his office, two aerial photos illustrate his frustration. In one, taken in the 1960s, a pinkish school building is surrounded by lush fields. In the other, taken last year, the green has been replaced with housing clusters.

"Can I compete with a developer? No. I would love to say that I could," said Murphy, who grew up on a Howard County farm that is now also a housing development. "But because of the Uptons' background, because they were raised in a different generation, money isn't what drives them. They have a set of values. They are trying to maintain a part of the past."

It is a past rich with memories of hucksters pulling their horse-drawn carts down city streets, shouting "Annarannel berries, Annarannel peas, Annarannel beans" all the way. Farmers, too, were swarmed as they trucked their wares to local farmers' markets.

In the early 1900s, 95 percent of all county residents toiled on thousands of farms. Today, 1 percent of county residents list farming as an occupation, and only 412 working farms remain, according to David Myers, a farmer and educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

For the first year Myers can remember, farming wasn't even listed as a job category on income tax forms for 2000.

'It's all going'

"It's all going," laments Allen Upton, Melvin Upton's son, adding that the county is "losing its agriculture and its history."

Cory Stephens, general manager of the Anne Arundel County Farm Association, agrees. He's watched his family, the Pumphreys, sell much of the northern Anne Arundel County farmland they once owned to developers.

Stephens understands the lure of developers' dollars. He's approached monthly about selling his Odenton farm. His brothers, who own a farm near the Uptons, are approached weekly. Saying yes would be easy: Equipment is expensive, land is scarce and the work is hard. But Stephens, who has known Melvin Upton through the many years the elder man served as the association's president, also sees what the county loses when farms grow houses instead of food.

"A lot of these guys are walking in the footsteps of their grandfathers," Stephens said. "There aren't a lot of people who can say that."

The Upton brothers can. Their grandfather, John Wesley Upton, and their father, Edward Upton, cleared their farmland in 1890. Melvin was born in 1910, the oldest of 12 children. Eight are still alive. But only the three brothers inherited the farm. The others sought different lives.

Melvin Upton started picking strawberries at age 10. When he married, he moved with his wife, Hilda, into the sturdy white house his grandfather built, where he raised his three children and still lives today. His two brothers live in identical white houses, also built by their grandfather. Ridgely Upton lives in what the family calls the Home Place, the house where all the Upton brothers were born.

Though they started out with strawberries, peas and beans, the Uptons switched to tobacco during the second half of the 20th century. Melvin Upton's daughter, Muriel Gyory, remembers her uncles throwing tobacco worms on her feet, like playful older brothers.

"We had a good time here; we had a good childhood," said Gyory, 63.

There were hard times, too. Upton lost his wife, Hilda, in 1997, after 62 years of marriage. One of his daughters, Nancy, died in 1978.

Changes in the county, too, are difficult for Upton to stomach. It bothered him when New Cut Road, which bisects the farm, changed from dirt to gravel, and then became a busy blacktop highway. He took notice when the Wal-Mart and the Target were built, less than half a mile away.

But it didn't start to eat at him until Daniel's Purchase, a development of modern homes, sprang up on the former Wagner family farm behind him.

Upton's garden, where he grows sweet potatoes to sell at farmers' markets in Annapolis, is only a few feet from the development's latest house.

"It used to be pretty," Upton said, wincing, "before we got that."

But even as he fights old age and prepares to sell, Upton is not letting go. With a cell phone strapped to one side of his khaki pants, and a hanging timepiece on the other, he limps from his hothouse to his garden, pulling weeds along the way. Though he retired in 1972, Upton works every day from sunup to sundown.

He lives alone, and with the help of his cane, he tends to his crops and fixes his breakfast every morning - two waffles and a bowl of cereal.

"I can't eat too many sweets," said, breaking into a grin.

Otherwise, he said, he can do everything he always did - it just takes him three times longer.

Murphy was particularly impressed one day when he came by and Upton was struggling to assemble a television stand. The next week, when he returned, the stand was up.

'Last of the Mohicans'

That perseverance doesn't surprise those who know him.

"He's kind of like the last of the Mohicans," Stephens said. "He's one of a kind, there's no two ways about it."

Upton said that in all their years, he and his brothers have never fought. And just as they have jointly decided to sell half their farm, they have also decided the Home Place is not for sale. Already, Upton said, he has to look at Daniel's Purchase from his back porch. He'd like to be able to look out his front porch and remember his parents.

If Spalding gets the farm, Murphy has told Upton he'll gladly honor that request. The school president would like to keep the home and its barns intact long after the Uptons have gone.

"We would like to put something up, a commemorative plaque, so people know that these were people who worked really hard," Murphy said. "They fed a lot of people. They fed people in good times and in bad times. And that is something we shouldn't forget."

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