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A tasty way to do your part in preserving local farmland

August 05, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Last year, something along the lines of 30 small dairy farmers in Washington and Frederick counties gave up the ghost. Taking their place were crops of big, new houses.

A tainted spinach scare went national, because production of the vegetable is in the hands of a very few.

Meanwhile, Draft Horse Journal magazine noted that the tractor didn't just eliminate a farmer's horses, it eliminated the farmer's neighbors.

Last week, Congress passed a business-as-usual farm bill that stacks the deck in the favor of mega-growers and continues subsidies even in times of record-high commodity prices.

Agriculture as Empire is marvelously efficient. Its massive scale allows it to undercut small producers. Its massive profits allow it to spend freely, not just on seeds and sprays, but on politicians who happily take the cash and continue to make it more and more difficult for small farmers to exist.

None of which bothers Julie Stinar. Well, it bothers her, but she's doing something about it. With her husband Brent, she bought the 132-acre Evensong farm near Sharpsburg in 2002, where she sells vegetables, flowers, herbs and eggs under a plan known as Community Supported Agriculture.

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This year, 37 families paid up front for a subscription that buys them 20 weeks of the farm's bounty. What's left over is sold at the farmers' market at Prime Outlets on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

People who are concerned about the quality of their food and are concerned about preserving farmland in Washington County owe it to themselves to actively seek out farms such as Evensong. Nose around and you will find others growing everything from beef to berries locally, and doing it the right way.

"We try to reconnect people with what it means to grow and eat locally," Stinar said.

It's up to you to join in, because government won't help. Even farmland easements - which as my friend Tommy says, takes farmers and turns them into park rangers - don't address what we really ought to be addressing: Finding ways to make local farming pay.

Speaking at the Washington County Ag Museum Wednesday evening, Stinar described a growing movement known as "localvores." These are people who satisfy as much of their food needs as possible from area farms.

The reasons are obvious. The food's better. It supports local agriculture. It supports the environment by avoiding long-haul trucking, not to mention that many of these producers shun chemicals and hormones.

Maybe most important, it gives buyers a sense of ownership and connection with the land and the people who grow their food. When drought or groundhogs hit, the customer feels the effects, right along with the grower. "The customer is a partner in the farm (and) it's emotional support for the farmer," Stinar said.

It would be easier if the government were not as big, or bigger, pest than woodchucks or squash bugs. For example, Stinar said she was in the process of putting together a package for an entire, locally grown meal when she came upon the problem of, of all things, bread.

She was able to find one Washington County woman who grew the right kind of wheat, but the state didn't like the idea of the grower grinding her own flour for public consumption.

"They wanted to know if (her business) had an explosion plan and a haz-mat plan," Stinar said. "She said, 'Do you realize this is just me in my kitchen with a table-top grinder?'"

In the name of public safety, there are roadblocks at every turn.

"It would be great to be able to sell you locally grown chicken, but it's just too hard to do," Stinar said. And good, wholesome raw milk is illegal in Maryland - thanks much to the big dairy industry, which does not want the competition, or the thought that people might find out what real milk tastes like.

The paradoxes abound. Many of the big dairymen who oppose the sales grew up drinking raw milk on their farms. And you can go to Hagerstown supermarkets and buy raw-milk cheese - it's just that the cheese can't have been produced in Maryland.

Perversely, when agriculture is in the hands of the very few, the results can be far more deadly and widespread then could ever be possible with local farms, as evidenced by last year's spinach tragedy.

But while bags of spinach were pulled from supermarket shelves nationwide, those families buying from Evensong weren't worried, because "they knew me and they could see how I grew my spinach," Stinar said.

Customers are also learning that food can be fun. Evensong specializes in flavorful, little-known varieties. Many of its cucumbers are shaped in exotic curlicues. Few of its tomatoes are red, few of its carrots are orange.

As good as most any home-grown Better Boy tomato can be, heirloom varieties of tomatoes - many of them oddly colored - go even further. There's an old saying that the worse a tomato looks, the better it tastes and it's true.

So each week's basket is delicious, colorful, healthy, an investment in farmland preservation - and a culinary adventure.

Stinar said she had a customer who wanted a subscription because she wanted to "force herself" to buy local and couldn't trust herself enough to make it to the farmers' market on Saturday mornings. "Now, Stinar says, "She has to figure out what to do with fennel."

That's a delicious problem to have.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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