From blimp pilot to successful farmer: Montgomery County’s new crop of tillers

Keith Krause didn’t come to a career in agriculture by the usual routes, growing up on a family farm or working his way up from hired hand. He came by blimp. The onetime Met Life blimp pilot spent so many hours floating over pretty cropland that he decided he wanted to get his hands on — and in — some of it.

“I stared down at a whole lot of farms,” said Krause, 34, who spent more than 300 days a year in the sky above World Series games, Super Bowls and NASCAR races. “Eventually we decided it was time to come down and get our hands dirty.”

Krause and his girlfriend, Joyce Piedrafita (he spells her last name pilot-style: “Piper-Indigo-Echo,” etc.), are now starting their second season working a patch of land in rural Montgomery County. The two are part of a project launched last year to attract non-farmers to the county’s vast agricultural preserve. And after a year of toil, including a muddy spring and a one-for-the-almanacs winter, all four new farmers have survived to plant another crop.

“We were pleasantly surprised that they all made it through,” said Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, a nonprofit booster of the Ag Reserve, the 93,000-acre swath of protected farmland stretching across Maryland’s most populous county. “We see a lot of people come to farming with stars in their eyes. And then as soon as August sets in with the bugs and the heat and the weeds, they run screaming.”

The four sets of newbie farmers who signed up last spring also included a pastry chef, an international development consultant and a former restaurant server. The chef, Mark Mills, started growing organic tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables on three acres near Poolesville, for which he signed a five-year lease at $100 a month.

Mills had such success selling at farmers markets in Langley Park and Olney and to area restaurants, he has already quit his day — or rather night — job making fancy desserts for Washington’s Blue Duck Tavern. This spring, he has expanded his tilled acreage and is sinking the poles for a patch of hops. He’s starting his seedlings in a new cold house.

“It’s farming pretty much 24-7 now,” said Mills, who also cooks a line of artisanal chocolates, some made with his own herbs. He donated more than 4,000 pounds of produce to the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg and plans to do the same this year. “We really had some bumper crops last year. They got a lot of turnips.”

The county’s New Farmer Pilot Project, launched in 2012 with a $150,000 federal grant, seeks to match newcomers to farming with unused farmland in the preserve. By locating small plots to lease, providing some start-up training and recruiting experienced farmers as mentors, the program helped the novices over two of the biggest hurdles to start-up farming: the cost of land and gaining experience.

Sarah Mills, who coordinates the project for the county’s Department of Economic Development, said administrators are now seeking more landowners willing to lease at below-market rates and hope to have another class of farmers planting by next spring. The first bunch endured, she said, because they were carefully culled from the pool of 18 original applicants.

“We looked beyond just who was most qualified on paper,” Miller said. “They were people with really interesting ideas.”

One, Charles Littlefield, who travels the world as an expert in democracy and governance, planted an orchard of persimmons near Sugarloaf Mountain. The trees are on track to produce marketable fruit next year, Miller said.

Courtney Buchholtz, who became interested in the local food movement while working in a high-end restaurant in Minneapolis, is still getting adjusted to Washington summers. But she has converted a two-acre former animal pasture into a tidy, weedless vegetable lot. She has been selling broccoli, cabbages and lettuce at markets in Silver Spring and to a food club in Gaithersburg. Now she’s planting sweet potatoes, squash and some ever-tricky celery.

“With celery, it’s all about the water,” Buchholtz said. “Every year I strive harder to be a better celery grower.”

This being farming, the year has not been without hardships. Miller has watched agog as clover erupts after every rain. Krause and Piedrafita had their hoop house, a kind of portable greenhouse over crop rows, crushed by the winter’s third major snow storm.

But this being farming in the Washington area, their biggest hassle was traffic. The two sold produce last year by weekly subscription to a group of households around Ellicott City and Baltimore, where Piedrafita has family. The ideals of country living quickly crashed into the realities of rush hour.

“We tried to plan that our harvest would be done before 4 o’clock just to avoid problems on [Interstate] 270,” Krause said. “Any farmer will tell you, farming is a humbling experience. As much as you think you have a plan and control over things, you never do.”

For this year, subscribers will pick up at the farm, and the two are selling at the Olney Farmers Market on Saturdays. It’s going well, but the blimp-pilot-turned-farmer is still hanging on to his other job: He’s a blackjack dealer at Maryland Live Casino.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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