Salad days: North County organic farmers learn as they grow

The odds against former ambulance driver Jack Clayton turning into a self-taught, full-time farmer despite having little or no agricultural experience were formidable.

Yet the Phoenix, Md., native, who now has learned enough to own a thriving business growing and selling organic produce at the Towson Farmers’ Market and other local venues, points to a fateful moment decades before his birth that has allowed him the opportunity to enjoy a full life and work hard at something he loves.

The moment was when his maternal grandfather, Herman Kornick, who was serving in the Army in the Pacific during World War II, had a near-miss from an enemy sniper.

According to family lore, Kornick had written a letter home to his mother describing how a bullet went through his helmet, cut his hair and singed his scalp.

“An inch lower, and he would have been killed and I wouldn’t be here,” Clayton said. “So it makes you wonder.”

The fact that his grandfather survived the rigors of war inspired Clayton to accomplish his goals.

“If he could go through all that, then I can do this,” Clayton said, referring to the farming business that he and his partner, Candi Durham, own after building it from scratch over the past five years.

In what was another stroke of good luck, Clayton and Durham met when he landed a job as a driver for Procare Ambulance of Maryland, working mainly in the Towson area.

Durham was his fellow emergency medical technician (EMT) in the vehicle before they became a couple.

“When you’re stuck in an ambulance 40 hours a week with someone, you’d better get along, and we do,” said Durham, 39, who has three sons from a previous marriage. “We’re good partners.”

In 2013, Clayton, now 31, and Durham were both ready for a new phase of their lives, motivated, in part, because Clayton was prohibited by insurance regulations from operating the ambulance because of traffic violations he incurred while riding his motorcycle.

Durham said that she and Clayton had been thinking about changing careers for some time “due to our frequent transporting of hospice patients (in the ambulance) and trying to be proactive in helping people before they get sick.”

And although he couldn’t drive anymore for Procare, Clayton still retained his driver’s license, Durham said.

The moving violations were basically the final straw in pushing Jack to start the farm, Durham said. “That’s when he said, ‘I’m going to start farming.’”

It’s one thing to say that you’re going to make a radical lifestyle change, and quite another to pull it off.

Clayton’s learning curve started modestly enough in that he used a small backyard plot at his mother’s house in Phoenix to figure out how to grow things efficiently and — most importantly to them — without chemicals, pesticides or genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs.

Clayton also solicited some of his neighbors in the area close to the Hillandale Golf Course to allow him to use portions of their backyards for his DIY project.

“I was pretty surprised that they got into it,” said Clayton’s mom, Jean Anderson, who helps her son and his wife at the Towson Farmers’ Market. “I’ll tell you one thing, they work like demons. Sometimes I think they work too hard.”

That said, Clayton and Durham said that enjoy seeing the fruits of their labors from long hours planting, weeding, harvesting, cleaning and delivering their vegetables.

Clayton learned the finer points of farming in an unorthodox way, viewing YouTube videos and reading books on how to employ SPIN (small-plot intensive) techniques.

Slowly but surely, the couple figured out the best, most efficient and healthiest ways to make plants grow, eventually turning their dream job into what is now known as Clayton Farms.

What is even more impressive is that the couple refused to go into debt to get the business up and running.

“I didn’t borrow any money to get it started,” said Clayton, who graduated from the James Run Christian Academy in Bel Air before attending the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. “But I did borrow a tiller from one of my neighbors.”

It wasn’t until the last two years that Clayton has been able to become a full-time farmer, a luxury that his partner still doesn’t share.

She still works December through February for East Coast Ambulance, although being pregnant with twin girls due in November might put the kibosh on that plan this year.

Their first real breakthrough came when Clayton Farms earned a contract to sell fresh greens to Johns Hopkins University, producing between 50 and 100 pounds per week for the school’s student cafeterias.

They also sell to several restaurants in Westminster and, more locally, to the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley.

Another revenue stream comes from Clayton Farms’ community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which is designed to sell in advance shares or memberships of produce grown on the couple’s 4-acre plot in Manchester, Carroll County. The arrangement gives members weekly access to extremely fresh, high-quality produce throughout the growing season.

That said, their summer staples are the Towson Farmers’ Market on Thursdays and the Carroll County Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Both venues have been a boon to the business and adding one more — they said they are eyeing the Kenilworth Farmers Market — might be in the cards.

In Towson, for instance, the Clayton Farms stand has doubled in size from last year, Clayton said.

“Last year we made twice as much money as we did the year before,” he said. “And this year is going well, too.”

Their offerings on a recent sunny Thursday — from garlic scapes, herbs, kohlrabi, curly kale and snap peas to a wide variety and sizes of cucumbers, squash, squash blossoms and leafy greens — lured customers to their site in front of Towson Hot Bagels on Allegheny Avenue.

Towson resident Dian Moffatt, who bought a bundle of Swiss chard from the stand, said that she wishes she could afford more of the organic produce that Clayton acknowledges costs more than non-organic veggies.

“But they’re not that much more expensive,” Clayton said. “The reason organic costs a little more is because I do all the weeding while non-organic farmers use herbicides. But I’m willing to work harder to do it.”

Clayton Farms employs organic growing techniques and is a Certified Naturally Grown producer, which is a grass-roots alternative to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic program.

According to the Certified Naturally Grown website, there are 21 participating farms in Maryland with four in Baltimore County and one in Carroll County.

Sales of organic produce In the U.S. have more than tripled over the past dozen years, rising from $13 billion in 2005 to $48 billion in 2017, according to the www.statista.com website.

Clayton and Durham said they are appreciative of people who prefer organic produce, such as Gaywood resident Wally Lippincott, who said that he is a weekly Clayton Farms customer at the Towson market.

“Their spring mix is fantastic,” the Baltimore County planner said.

That Durham is in her fifth month of pregnancy and still farming does not surprise her husband.

“Candi is the toughest person I know, “ he said.

“I am typically outside at the farm each day with Jack, planting, harvesting, processing and doing post-harvest work,” Durham said. “I often handle marketing, restaurants and bookkeeping in the evenings. We live frugally and pay our bills while doing something we really love. It’s pretty awesome.”

Together, they have formed an agricultural alliance that they plan to, as it were, keep growing.

“We want to provide our community with access to healthy, organically grown produce in the hope that we all may live longer healthier lives,” reads a statement by Clayton and Durham on the their website, claytonfarms.org. “This is our passion, and it goes beyond selling high quality produce. We implement efficient, sustainable, and regenerative growing techniques that maintain healthy soil and encourage biodiversity.”

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