Not very long ago, it seemed that Bobby Prigel's northern Baltimore County dairy farm was about to go out of business.
Bellevale Farm, which has been run by four generations of Prigels, couldn't compete with large-scale operations that keep costs low by milking thousands of cows each day.
But then Prigel tried a different approach - he returned to farming methods more common in his great-grandfather's day than in his father's. He allowed his cows to graze freely in pastures and adopted organic practices. The cows grew healthier, sales increased and now Prigel is about to open a dairy store on his Long Green farm to sell homemade yogurt, ice cream and cheese.
Like many other small farmers in Maryland, Prigel, 46, attributes his success to the growing demand for locally produced, natural foods.
"We establish a relationship with our customers," he says. "You can come and see that we are doing what we are supposed to do. I don't think I'd be in business if it weren't for the local food movement."
Spurred by environmental concerns, fears of contamination and a desire to know more about the origins of their meals, more consumers are choosing food grown or raised close to home. Locavores, as they are called, say local produce contains more nutrients than produce that is picked early and shipped long distances. And, perhaps most important, local food tastes better, they say.
For farmers, the locavore movement has brought hope that small family farms can persist, or even thrive, in the 21st century.
"By buying this food, you're supporting these farms and keeping farms in your community," says Michael Pollan, who has written several books, including The Omnivore's Dilemma, about the food industry. "It's a way to try to check sprawl. And what farmers give to a community is quite extraordinary."
The demand for local produce is growing in Maryland, says Mark Powell, director of marketing for the state department of agriculture. More than three-quarters of residents prefer to buy fruits and vegetables grown in Maryland, and more than 40 percent will pay a premium for local products, according to a recent survey by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore.
Several new restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen and The Dogwood in Baltimore, feature local foods on their menus. To encourage others to do the same, cookbook author Kerry Dunnington, a Roland Park resident and a member of Slow Food Baltimore, is launching the "Eat in Season Challenge." At a dinner Tuesdayat the Watertable Restaurant in the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, guests will eat a five-course meal of local meats and produce, accompanied by local wines.
Small farmers focus on the art of agriculture as much as the science, often raising flavorful heirloom breeds and, in the case of organic farmers, shunning the use of hormones, antibiotics and chemical pesticides. They build personal relationships with the people who eat their food and adjust production to meet their customers' demands.
But leaving behind mainstream agricultural practices can be an intimidating prospect.
"It was a little scary. We wondered, 'Are we out of our minds?'" says Samuel Ecker, 50, who founded Legacy Manor Farm with his wife, Katherine, in 2000 in Washington County. "The first year was tough, the second year was better and the third year we were starting to explode."
The Eckers raise Waygu cattle, older breeds of pigs like the Glouchester Old Spot, quail, pheasants, chickens and turkeys. They also grow lettuce hydroponically - using liquid nutrients - and are experimenting with growing broccoli all year.
The 370-acre farm in Boonsboro supplies meat and poultry to several area restaurants and 250 dozen eggs each week to a West Virginia inn. But families who make the drive from Baltimore or Washington are the heart of the business.
"You come down here, and 50 turkeys will come up to your car," Ecker says. "Customers come in and sit and talk with us for awhile, walk around the farm with us. It's the connection. They want to know where their food comes from."
Unlike, say, a package of peeled carrot sticks from the supermarket, produce from small farms retains a relationship to the earth in which it was grown. Spinach is flecked with sand; heirloom tomatoes are lumpy and pocked. A steak has a story behind it.
"When you buy milk from our farm, you're looking the person in the eyes who is responsible for raising the cow," says Kate Dallam of Broom's Bloom Dairy of Bel Air. "People want to be more connected with their food."
Although supermarket customers might get the sense that a plastic foam tray is a chicken's natural habitat, humans have historically cultivated relationships with the foods that we eat, says Joel Salatin of Virginia, who is considered a pioneer of the local and sustainable agriculture movements.
"Throughout the history of humankind, we've always had a dance partner for dinner that we've had an intimate relationship with," says Salatin. "In the last 50 years, we as a culture in the developed countries have allowed ourselves to be divorced from the dinner dance partner."
At Polyface, his organic farm near Staunton, Va., Salatin has developed agricultural practices radically different from those used at large farms, which tend to produce a single crop or type of livestock. His animals don't munch on feed in dark barns but graze in pastures. Rotating livestock through pastures keeps the soil healthy while, he says, honoring "the cowness of a cow and the pigness of a pig."
Moreover, decentralized agriculture prevents large-scale contamination problems, such as the February recall of 143 million pounds of beef, Salatin says. And keeping food close to the area where it was grown reduces energy use and pollution from refrigeration and transportation.
Consumers looking to buy local must move beyond the grocery store. Two of the most popular options are farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA), in which individuals or families pay a lump sum at the beginning of the growing season for a weekly supply of produce.
Receiving that weekly produce can be a culinary adventure, says 31-year-old Dora Jacobs of Waverly, a board member of the CSA at Cromwell Valley Park in Baltimore County.
"Chard, kale, bok choy - these were really new to us and puzzling. You have to learn to be a little creative," says Jacobs, who joined the CSA three years ago when pregnancy made her more health-conscious.
CSAs are particularly beneficial for farmers because they bring in revenue throughout the year, not just at harvest time. And consumer interest has grown dramatically in the past few years.
At One Straw Farm in White Hall, just eight people purchased shares in 2000, the first year that the farm had a CSA program. Last year, more than 1,000 shares were purchased and distributed at 27 sites, says Joan Norman, who runs One Straw with her husband, Drew.
The Normans, who started their organic farm in the mid-1980s, used to supply produce to Whole Foods and organic distributors, but now find it more profitable - and less stressful - to focus on farmers' markets, CSA members and restaurants.
"Our customers are not rich, but they're well-educated and they want to feed their families good food," Norman says. "It really is great - I'm very happy and the people I feed are very happy."
To find out more
Want more information about locally grown foods and community-supported agriculture programs? Try these Web sites:
The state Agriculture Department's list of 41 CSAs: www.marylandagriculture.info/category_info.cfm?categoryid=46
A guide to locally grown foods, sponsored by the Agriculture Department:www.marylandsbest.net/
Slow Food Baltimore: www.slowfoodbaltimore.org/
Area farms: www.onestrawfarm.com/ www.legacymanorfarm.com/ www.bbdairy.com/ www.polyfacefarms.com/