Liker family picks a strawberry success at Gorman Farm

On the first day of pick-your-own season at Gorman Farm, parking was at a premium.

The lot quickly filled, forcing customers to park along the 1,000-foot gravel driveway and spill out onto the shoulders of Gorman Road, just a mile or so from Interstate 95.

The object of everyone's desire: plump, sweet strawberries.

By the third morning of opening weekend, owner Dave Liker was choreographing the heavy foot traffic on his 58-acre produce farm in North Laurel. He asked his wife and co-owner, Lydia, to switch signs to direct visitors to another field.

At 11 a.m., the first of his two half-acre strawberry fields had nearly been picked clean.

"The fruit is out there, it's just a hunt now," he told his wife, saying that he didn't want customers to get frustrated by dwindling supplies.

Strawberry season — the farm's only pick-your-own crop — started May 24 and will only last two to three weeks, making it a fleeting time of high consumer demand, said Liker, 38.

The Likers opened in 2009 on land where corn, wheat and soy had been grown but was allowed to lie fallow for a decade.

After a brutal storm pelted the fields with marble-sized hail just days before opening this year, temperatures in the mid- to upper-80s were rapidly ripening the fruit on some 15,000 plants.

"Plants have minds of their own, though the weather will push them," said Liker, whose berries are one of three fruits grown on his farm. Tomatoes and melons are the others.

Since strawberries can be so difficult to grow, Liker works with a consultant he calls "the Strawberry Guru" to monitor and stay ahead of weather trends that can quickly affect the delicate crop.

His success is also driven by the use of raised beds, black plastic mulch and polyester row covers that protect against frost, said Liker, a former musician who grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif.

His methods seem to be working.

The Chandler strawberries Liker grows are so popular that he encourages prospective visitors to check the farm's social media, website or recorded messages for updates on the fruit's availability before they venture out to avoid disappointment.

Gorman Farm — which follows organic practices, but is not certified organic — is one of only three pick-your-own strawberries operations in Howard County. The other two are Larriland Farm in Woodbine and Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg.

The farm's strawberry season starts earlier than some of its regional counterparts because of the early yield of the Chandler variety and Gorman Farm's southern location, he said.

But the window of time for selling strawberries is short.

"We will get plant disease since we don't use synthetic fungicides," he said, noting it's not a question of "if" but of "when." Before that happens, strawberry sales will end for the season.

Liker steered his black Toyota Tundra truck between produce plots to point out the mostly cosmetic damage wrought by eight minutes of hail. Some strawberries have small dents or bruises. There are nicks in the leaves of different varieties of lettuce, and the stalks of some onion plants are bent in half.

"They'll make it, though," he said.

A large portion of the 40 kinds of produce Liker grows is intended for the 450 members of his community-supported agriculture program, which sells 22-week shares of produce. He started his CSA the same year the farm opened with only 28 memberships.

The CSA model was first described to him by Joan and Drew Norman, owners of One Straw Farm in northern Baltimore County, when the Likers were mulling over their farming options and looking for advice.

"After they came and talked with us, Drew and I looked at each other and said, 'They're going to make it,' " Joan Norman said.

"Dave and Lydia are doing a bang-up job," she said. "We're very proud of them."

The Normans also heavily influenced the younger couple to tap into the high demand for locally grown food in Central Maryland by establishing their farm in North Laurel, where land was available to them for leasing, Liker said.

"So many people still tell me how lucky we are to be so close to the 95 corridor," Liker said. "We owe our success to Joan and Drew giving us the confidence to move here. Their advice was life-changing."

That's not to say farming in the county is not without its challenges.

"The natural topography here promotes poor drainage, and the soil is heavy and high in clay content," he said, hastily adding that he's not complaining.

"We chose marketing over topography" with an eye toward profitability, he said, which is important in taking care of his three children, ages 1 to 4, and to providing a living wage for his employees.

To continue thriving, Liker plans to expand to a second farm where he will build on the same philosophy of "contributing to humanity in a positive way."

Liker believes he has a good grip on what his customers want because "I am my own demographic, and I would love coming to a place like this."

Courtney Lacy, a CSA member who lives in nearby Kings Contrivance with her husband and two young kids, knows what Liker means. She was impressed by the beauty and flavor of the vegetables when she first stopped to check out the farm four years ago.

"We feel so strongly about having real food that is grown by people we know and trust," she said.

Liker said his customers inspire him to continue.

"This is a love, a passion; it's in my soul. Some of my best moments are coming over the knoll when the sun is setting and seeing that the soil's in good shape," he said.

But it's still a business at the end of the day.

To make it work, he often puts in 16- or 18-hour days. A date night with his wife of seven years often means working together in the fields after hours, under the floodlights.

"We set an enormous goal of starting a farm on totally raw land and making enough money to cover our expenses," Liker said. "Being able to do that is huge."

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