A farmer’s dream in downtown Silver Spring

June 10, 2011

In the shadow of the multi-story office and apartment buildings of downtown Silver Spring, a few blocks from traffic-clogged roads, is a one-acre plot where customers swear by the lettuce, the tomatoes and their caretaker, Charlie Koiner.

Almost every day for nearly 30 years, Koiner, 90, has been there, along with his daughter Lynn, raising locally grown, sustainable produce long before the world considered it fashionable.

“When you step onto his plot. it doesn’t feel like you’re in the city anymore, even though it’s only two or three blocks away from downtown,” said Ian Cook, one of two local filmmakers who collaborated on a documentary about Koiner and his daughter.

The two tend to a wide selection of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in the field next to their home. Regulars know they can pop by the Koiner home almost anytime for a few heads of lettuce, some kale or a handful of grape kiwis when they’re in season.

The farm — really a series of plots — isn’t a huge moneymaker for the pair. And although they probably could sell the parcel and retire with the proceeds, that prospect holds little appeal for the elder Koiner.

“At my age, it gives me something to do,” he said as he puttered about one recent Saturday, checking on his kale and bok choy. “This acre is just enough.”

Koiner has the aches and pains of a man heading into his 10th decade on Earth. He had triple bypass surgery in 1987, but for the most part, he says, he feels fit.

His daily uniform is simple — neatly pressed khakis, a short-sleeved button-down shirt, baseball cap and sturdy brown work boots. He doesn’t wear gloves, preferring the feel of the dirt and the vegetables he tends with his hands.

He doesn’t mind questions or even giving the occasional tour — but he’s not above cutting off conversation when he thinks it’s time to get back to work.

The Koiners have been farming their little acre of land since 1982. In those days, Silver Spring’s downtown was not the urban mecca it is today, but even then, many thought it made more sense to build homes rather than grow crops. Lynn Koiner, 65, recalled the puzzled reactions of developers upon learning that her father planned to raise crops — not houses — on the parcel.

“Back then, it was a pretty off-the-wall idea,” Cook added. “To take that entire piece of land and turn it into an urban garden? Back [then], it wasn’t on the priority list for anyone.”

Still, it was what Koiner — a farmer all his life — knew best. He was born in Montgomery County when horses and buggies traveled along what is now Rockville Pike. His family owned 33 acres, where Mid-Pike Plaza, home to the Toys R Us, now sits.

Farmer in a starring role

Koiner is choosy about the fruits and vegetables he grows. He shies away from heirloom tomatoes (“too much trouble to raise”) and is partial to a certain type of eggplant.

But it’s the lettuce that is his pride and joy. He grows only three varieties — Green Ice, romaine and Sierra Blush, in part because he thinks they’re best suited for the hot, muggy, Washington area climate.

Two years ago, Koiner caught the eye of Cook and filmmaking partner Andre Dahlman. Dahlman, who works in downtown Silver Spring, was looking for a place to buy fresh homegrown produce and his boss recommended he check out Koiner’s farm. The fresh produce was excellent — but Koiner’s story was even better. The resulting documentary — “Corner Plot” — was shown at festivals in the area. It was recently among the films chosen by the State Department to be shown at embassies around the world as part of a public diplomacy initiative. Dahlman said the Koiners may make their film debut in Tajikistan.

Koiner seems amused by the attention. But the idea that something he’s done all his life is creating a stir makes him chuckle. His frank appraisal of the film?

“It was nice,” he said. “I thought the vegetables looked really good.”

‘I love his greens’

Saturdays are Koiner’s busiest day. On this particular one, he has been up since 5 a.m. harvesting his signature crop — lettuce — for sale at the farmer’s market in downtown Silver Spring. He’s also filling an order for 50 heads from the folks at Snider’s Super Market, where his lettuce has become such a popular offering it often sells out in less than 30 minutes.

Koiner moves carefully through the plots, eyeing the lettuce for signs that it’s ready. Using a small kitchen knife, he bends over and carefully severs the stalk. The heads look like bright green fans in his rough hands.

For a moment, Koiner seems to slip into another world.

“That’s a beautiful head of lettuce, mmmm-hmmm . . . yes,” he says to himself, holding the head at arm’s length and nodding slowly.

At the market, several customers are already lined up at Koiner’s stand even before the 9 a.m. starting bell rings.

“Morning, Charlie,” says Marcia Custer of Silver Spring. “Your lettuce is fabulous. I got your Green Ice last week.”

Custer has been regular at Koiner’s stand since she discovered him five years ago.

“I love his greens, and his tomatoes are just great,” she said. “There’s nothing he grows that I don’t like.”

Helen Register credits Koiner with encouraging her to try vegetables that might otherwise have intimidated her.

“I’m a city girl,” she said. “I don’t know anything about farming.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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