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Growing a Different Life

Some Find That a Small Farm and Hard Work Beat a Regular Job Any Day

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page C01

Three days a week, Scott Hertzberg is a bureaucrat saddled to his swivel chair. He exerts himself by pushing a computer mouse inside a cramped cubicle, breathing recycled air.

The 34-year-old librarian does Internet research for the Department of Justice -- not a miserable job, but hardly the stuff of his dreams.

Scott and Tanya Hertzberg grow vegetables and flowers organically on nine acres in southern Prince George's County. (Photos Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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"You just have no control," he said. "There are five or six people involved in a decision to move a filing cabinet across the floor. And that could take six weeks or six months to do, if it even happens. It drives you crazy."

On his two weekdays off and on weekends, Hertzberg escapes to nine acres in southern Prince George's County, where the air smells like freshly cut grass. It has been three years since he and his wife, Tanya, who works full time for the Sierra Club, moved out of the house they rented in Takoma Park. They paid $240,000 for the land, a white Cape Cod-style home and a weathered tobacco barn and became part-time farmers.

Hertzberg considers himself part environmentalist, part "agrarian romantic" -- an admirer of the scrappy, independent life of his great-grandfather, a fruit peddler in Upstate New York. The work is physical. He trudges at dawn through muddy soil and rakes weeds with a stirrup hoe. Yet the rewards are immediate, he said, found in a patch of ripening eggplant or in a handful of cash fresh from the farmers market.

"It's primitive, and it's definitely not lucrative, but it's yours," he said. "Now I can say, 'I'm going to plant a row of peppers. I'm going to sell them to people in Bowie. I'm going to make that decision myself. Nobody can stop me.' "

In what remains of the rural landscape surrounding the District, the Hertzbergs are among the urban exiles who have found second careers working the earth, giving up collared shirts for overalls.

But to make a living as a farmer these days is to buck an ominous trend. The numbers of farms and acres of farmland in the region continue to fall. According to the most recent agricultural census, Maryland lost 1,056 farms from 1997 to 2002, an 8 percent drop. Virginia lost 1,760 farms, a 4 percent decline.

In Southern Maryland, in particular, the face of agriculture is changing. Tobacco used to be the predominant crop, but a state-sponsored buyout in 2001 encouraged growers to pursue other ventures. Since then, it has become more common to find small farms that grow vegetables, fruit or cut flowers, often with organic techniques.

First-generation and veteran farmers alike now frequently sell these crops to upscale restaurants and farmers markets in Washington and its suburbs.

"You're seeing it more often in folks who have worked off the farm, in urban settings. They see this as a way to fulfill their life's ambitions, to work outside with their hands," said Ben Beale, an agriculture educator in the St. Mary's County office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension who teaches classes for new farmers. "With farming, you're able to see the results of your work almost instantly. . . . You can get a sense of accomplishment out of that."

Dan and Sue Gragan headed for the country 10 years ago, when they were in their mid-forties. They left high-paying jobs in the District to start growing berries, peaches, cherries and other produce in St. Mary's County.

In her previous existence, "when I had [long] fingernails," Sue Gragan was a lobbyist on Capitol Hill for the commercial construction industry. Her husband did engineering design work. Both enjoyed helping friends who owned a peach orchard in Calvert County, they said, and neither was afraid of hard work.

"Next thing you know, we had 109 acres," Sue Gragan said.

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