Farming is returning to Prince George’s

At dusk, the pigs broke free.

When a power line fell in the Aquasco area of Prince George’s County, the curious porkers presumably pushed their wet snouts along the electric fence like always. But this time, they were shocked by the lack of shock and slipped away from their farmland home.

“Eight pigs! And we have no idea where they could be,” said Barb Haigwood, 43, who co-manages P.A. Bowen Farmstead with her 44-year-old husband, Mike.

Maybe they were hiding in the poplar trees on this 96-acre farm. Could they have walked uphill to where the Jersey cows play or gone to bother the free-range chickens? Or did they simply cross the road into the netherworld of brick houses and tidy lawns that once threatened the very existence of a farm like theirs?

Just eight years ago, developers were snatching up farmland for subdivisions. But when the housing boom went bust, an emerging generation of farmers bought the once-coveted land at cheap prices. They’ve rehabbed abandoned farms and tobacco barns and started to harvest new crops, fusing the county’s rural past with its trendy future.

“We’ve seen a complete revitalization and a realization of the resources we have in southern Prince George’s County,” said Yates Clagett, president of the county Farm Bureau. “Everyone wants local and organic,” he said, adding that this food movement is far from fad.

In a county more recognized for its suburban sprawl, a new ag-culture has led to the county’s first winery and a surge in community-shared agriculture programs, in which customers pay farmers up front for seeds to receive boxes of their bloom in return. At least one farm hosts birthday parties.

No one is completely sure just how many farms there are in the county, Clagett said, although a census is underway. The last count was done in 2007, revealing 357 farms in Prince George’s, a 17 percent decrease from 2002.

He expects that number to increase because of farms such as the P.A. Bowen Farmstead.

In July 2009, a former herdsman from New Zealand, Geoffrey Morell, and his wife, natural food activist and California native Sally Fallon Morell, harvested their dream and spent $1.2 million for the farm, a pricey but unharvested piece of land that has been in southeast Prince George’s since 1655. Last year, they became the county’s only dairy farm.

Night and day, the farm’s workers oversee this land, offering an alternative view of the future when compared with the struggling upscale subdivision next door that broke ground in 2010. Only two lots have been developed at Garrett’s Chance, which is being used to store excess hay.

At 6:15 each morning, the Haigwoods wake to a cacophony of warbling roosters and oinking pigs. Mike and Barb jump into overalls and galoshes to begin the day’s chores.

Barb leads nine brown cows to a shed called the milking parlor. There, the divas — with names inspired by opera singers such as Joan Sutherland and Kiri Te Kanawa — will eat grain and release as much as 70 gallons of milk into jugs to the sounds of a Mozart violin sonata.

“It just soothes them,” Barb said.

The whey that comes from the cheese production is used to help feed the pigs. After the milking, Barb walks the cows back to the pasture, where they eventually eat all the grass. When the grass clears, the cows are moved to a different piece of the property, and the chickens take up their old dwellings, eating larvae and bugs that fly around the cow’s waste. The manure replenishes the grass in an agrarian version of the circle of life.

Three days a week, Barb and co-owner Sally make cheddar, jack and blue cheese to sell at farmers markets and their on-site store. On Thursdays, Barb and Mike slaughter chickens. The farm’s seven employees pluck eggs and raise free-range soy-free beef and pork — provided that the pigs didn’t get lost.

On this humid night when eight broke free, the Haigwoods jumped in a buggy to find them. After 15 minutes, they found five. Three more sauntered off in another direction.

But the pigs, they learned, don’t like to stray too far from home. The stragglers were ultimately corralled less than 1,000 feet away. Every day on a new farm there’s a lesson learned.

Co-owner Fallon Morell, 63, had no farming background when she started this endeavor. But for years, she discussed the values of old-school nutrition in lectures and at conventions.

Her book, “Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats,” has sold a half-million copies while extolling the benefits of drinking raw milk (which she does not produce because of state restrictions) and liberally using lard and butter in cooking.

After years of championing this diet, she decided that it was “time to put my money where my mouth is.” So she and her husband left Northwest Washington to move 32 miles from the White House in this oft-forgotten part of Prince George’s, where farmland was spacious and prices were low.

“People just don’t expect farms to be in this county,” said Fallon Morell, whose home is on the property. “But they are here; this is where we got the best bang for our buck.”

Geoffrey Morell fixed up one of the old tobacco barns. They built a shed to house the store, the milking parlor and the cheese processing plant — a place so filled with tubes, pH monitors, thermometers and scales that it is more science lab than country farm.

Last year, the farm produced 12,000 pounds of cheese, a process that takes at least 60 days.

“We’ve had our troubles,” Fallon Morell laughed. “Sometimes, we were making it too soft or too moist. It just didn’t taste good. But we learned.”

The Morells dream of raising lambs and ducks, too, over time. They’re already profitable but noted that sustained success isn’t guaranteed. So much depends on the continuing interest in local food — and Fallon Morell and her staff’s ability to perfect the tasks of a farm.

A little after sunrise, one day, a cow disappeared.

The pigs were witnesses; they run up every morning to the parade of bovine divas sauntering to the milking station.

Walking behind them, Barb thought that the trek was getting simpler each day. But that wasn’t it.

“I’m missing one,” she blurted out, walking back to the woods to search for Renee (like Renee Fleming), who was lingering yards behind.

“Come on girl! Keep moving!” Barb shouted before the cow moseyed into the milking parlor.

A bigger problem awaited Barb. One of her employees, who usually transfers the raw milk into a series of tubes and then a container where it will be heated and tested, came with a terrible message.

“I’m sick,” he said. He had to leave right away.

“I’ve never done your job before,” she said. “No one is here to help!”

Barb sighed. On this morning she taught herself how to transfer the raw milk. Another day, another lesson learned.

If you have an idea for a story about the Washington area at night, e-mail Robert Samuels at the address above.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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