County still hasn't outgrown its farms


In most places, a farm is hundreds of acres, sweeping fields of green as far as the eye can see.

In Howard County, it is just as likely to be a sliver of land tucked between houses.

Once an agricultural area through and through, Howard has become suburban - and urban - in less than a lifetime. In 1950, 23,000 people lived in the county. Now, more than 250,000 do, and the vast majority do not work with crops or livestock.

Thousands of families have moved onto cul-de-sacs in the last bastion of rural Howard, the communities west of Route 32.

But through it all, farmers have kept farming. They've found ways to get the most out of the little land they have.

"We're constantly planting, harvesting, reseeding ... and trying to maximize what Mother Nature gives us," said David Shaw, an organic farmer who cultivates half of a 6-acre property on Columbia's outskirts.

Shaw, whose family turned a large garden into a full-time business in 1995, grows more than 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Traditional farmers plant one or maybe two crops per acre per year; he aims for three or four, constantly rotating from, say, garlic to lettuce to turnips to radishes in the same spot.

Tony Evans of the state Department of Agriculture, said he is impressed by the vibrancy of agriculture in Howard. Some counties seem to have given up on farming, he said, but in Howard people are jumping in as others bow out.

"It takes a lot of 'want' to be a farmer in Howard County these days - you've really got to want to do it," Evans said. "You've got neighbors who get upset about some normal farming practices. ... But there is definitely a place for small farms because all your growth - and there's a lot of affluent growth - means there's a ton of customers there."

Farmers' markets operate twice a week in Columbia during the season, one at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, open Tuesdays from May 6 through Oct. 28 this year, and the other at the east Columbia library, open Thursdays from May 8 through Nov. 20.

The Howard County Fair, a highlight of the year for 4-H members and other agricultural competitors, fills a week each summer at the fairgrounds in West Friendship.

Then there's the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Billed as the largest event of its kind in the nation, it brings tens of thousands of people and hundreds of animals to the Howard fairgrounds every year.

But people looking for the farm experience do not have to wait for events. More and more local farmers are opening their barn doors to all comers.

Some are practicing "agri-tourism," making their income by offering petting zoos, hayrides, mazes and corporate picnics. Others invite customers to cut their own Christmas trees, or pick pumpkins or fruit.

Ghassan Neshawat expects plenty of visits to his family's Jasmine Farm in Glenwood this year. More than 50 people have signed up for his harvest subscription service. They pay a fee early and share in the bounty later in what is commonly called community-supported agriculture.

Neshawat left a good-paying job as a medical sonographer to organically farm his 17 acres. He loves it, but it is an uphill battle. Last year, his second season, farm revenue exceeded farm expenses by not quite $2,000.

That was a lot better than the year before, when he spent $28,000 and brought in a little more than $3,000.

"Record heat, a drought - it's like it's hitting me all in the beginning," said Neshawat, whose produce sales also suffered from sniper-induced fear last year. "We're hoping it'll get better as it goes along."

Diane Brown, proprietor of Carlhaven Emu Farm in Highland, almost made money last year and expects to be in the black this year. In addition to giving tours for small groups, she sells emu oil, meat, eggs, eggshells and feathers.

The 6-year-old farm had to create a clientele from scratch because "the vast majority of the world did not know what emu was," Brown said.

As traditional ways of working the land disappear, "the only way to survive, farming in Howard County, is to have something with a niche market," said Brown, who uses about an acre of her family's 24-acre property. "And that kind of equals small."

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