Farmers Promote a Simpler Christmas

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, with daughter Brooke Middleton, sells seasonal trees on his farm and calls December the most profitable month.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, with daughter Brooke Middleton, sells seasonal trees on his farm and calls December the most profitable month. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tickle Me Elmo TMX and Nintendo Wii might be the hot toys this Christmas, but Dorys Brennan has another idea of the perfect gift: an alpaca teddy bear.

Teddy bears made from alpaca wool are the top sellers at Brennan's Calvert County farm, and she is eager to preach the virtues of Christmas shopping on the farm instead of at big-box stores.

"The experience of going out to the farm to get a Christmas present for your kid is so cool," Brennan said. "It's more meaningful. A mall is just a mall."

Brennan is one of dozens of farmers across Maryland who are encouraging consumers to look to local farms for this year's holiday shopping. In the Washington area, farmers in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties are working to preserve the state's rural heritage through outreach and are generating revenue.

Christine Bergmark, who coordinates an annual winter farm guide that serves five Maryland counties, said many people are accustomed to buying produce from a farm during the summer but assume that farms have nothing to offer in the colder months.

The "Farms for the Holidays" guide, listing places to buy Christmas trees, firewood, alpaca wool products and other items, is a way to correct that notion, she said.

"We want to remind people that there are goods and services on farms all the way through the winter," said Bergmark, executive director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. "You can still buy food and plants and gifts locally."

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who farmed full time in Waldorf before embarking on his political career, said his decision 25 years ago to sell Christmas trees on the family farm has made December his most profitable month. Middleton ships more than 800 Fraser firs from North Carolina each Thanksgiving and generally sells out before Christmas.

Middleton's 300-acre farm, which has been in his family since the middle of the 17th century, also sells custom wreaths, swags and centerpieces, as well as rocking chairs and other handmade wooden furniture.

"Our appreciation to the customers is they're helping to preserve a farm for another generation," Middleton said. "Without those profits, it would be hard for us to survive in farming."

In Montgomery, the Agricultural History Farm Park in Derwood sponsors a Christmas on the Farm weekend to remind people of a less commercial version of holiday celebrations. Scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, the event will feature a 1920s era farmhouse decorated for Christmas, a country store and bake sale and gallons of hot chocolate.

Amelia Stubbs, a member of the Friends of the Agricultural History Farm Park, said that the Christmas on the Farm weekend and a blacksmiths' craft fair in November draw more than 500 people combined, many of whom buy custom-made hinges and doorknobs, knitted sweaters or woven baskets as holiday gifts. Other people come to teach their children about old-fashioned celebrations.

"The children coming up today must realize what it was like back then; it wasn't about glitter and shopping and electronics and all the stuff there is today," she said.

Annette Samouris, a goat farmer in St. Mary's, attributes her strong sales of goat's milk soap to a general disillusionment with a consumer culture driven by national brands.

Her customers, she said, want to feel good about their holiday purchases by supporting local artisans.

"These days, what I hear is people want things that are made in America; they want to support the local craftsperson," said Samouris, who has 400 bars of goat's milk soap stacked in her basement to sell as gifts. "So everybody tries to find their little niche."

Middleton said that the opportunity to make shopping only one part of the holiday experience has drawn many families to explore local farms' offerings. When he decided not to sell Christmas trees for a year, his children became angry at him for ruining the family tradition, he said.

"It's a nice feeling to have parents and children sitting around decorating things and drinking hot chocolate and sharing the whole experience," he said, "and that's what we can do all season long."

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