Organic farmer Heinz Thomet is fanning the flames in southern Maryland

By Tim Carman
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 2:45 PM

At 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11, when Heinz Thomet should have been harvesting product for the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market the next day, the farmer noticed flames poking through a boiler-room wall on his Next Step Produce farm. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, but the gusher of flame-suppressing foam never materialized. Two other extinguishers were duds, too. Thomet finally read the fine print on his red canisters.

"If those things are sitting for two years, all the material inside can just settle on the bottom, and it really doesn't do anything anymore. So ideally, they say on the small print to shake that thing every other week," says the owner of the 86-acre farm in Newburg, in Charles County. "You have no idea how helpless I felt then."

Sixteen minutes after he spotted the blaze, Thomet called 911. Rather than wait for the trucks, the farmer decided to crank up his irrigation system and serve as his own volunteer firefighter. The real brigade, however, rolled into Next Step before he could get the water flowing. It was 7:13 a.m.; his boiler room and adjacent woodshed were engulfed in flames.

To Thomet, the crisis required radical thinking: At that point, he figured he would be better off letting the fire have its way, consuming the entire boiler-room structure and all 17 cords of firewood stored in the shed. That way, he would have to spend less time demolishing and removing whatever useless charred pieces remained of the wooden building, which housed the furnace that heated his home and his two greenhouses.

The Newburg Volunteer Fire Department viewed the situation from the opposite perspective: There was a fire, and it needed to be extinguished. The supervisor at the scene was not interested in Thomet's proposal to let the blaze die on its own.

A supervisor "basically says to me that I called 911, they're here to put it out, and I should step aside. And [because] I didn't jump, then he calls the police," Thomet recalls. "What I learned, in retrospect, is when you call 911, you have no more rights."

Clifton Butler, assistant fire chief with the Newburg crew, has a different recollection of events. Sure, Thomet asked the supervisor to let the building burn, he says, but the farmer's approach was, let's say, not so diplomatic. He was "yelling and screaming," Butler remembers. "He called us idiots and everything else. . . . Told us we're stupid. Everything he could think of, he called us." (Thomet, for his part, denies he treated the firefighters with such disrespect.)

Whatever the case, Thomet's request stood no chance against the hardware amassed on his property. Trucks and pumpers from Newburg, La Plata, Cobb Island, Bel Alton, King George County, St. Mary's County and even the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren, Va., all carefully maneuvered down Next Step's narrow, winding, uneven dirt-and-gravel driveway, more than a half-mile long, and converged on the scene. Together, the trucks had about 6,000 gallons of water. It still wasn't enough to extinguish the fire, Butler says.

"We can let this thing burn once we get it to a controllable stage, but right now [the fire was] too far gone for us not to calm it down, because then we'll have everything on fire. The woods and everything will be on fire," Butler recalls. "I mean, those flames were standing probably 25 to 40 feet in the air."

Several weeks after those flames finally were extinguished, tempers have settled, too. At least for now. Because even though Thomet might not still be spitting bullets over the fire departments' performance, he's still swimming against the current. The contrariness he apparently displayed on Dec. 11 is part of the same take-no-prisoners personality that fuels his continuing resistance to traditional farming practices in Southern Maryland.

Thomet, 51, and his wife, Gabrielle Lajoie, 33, run a certified organic farm amid a sea of conventional ones. They are outsiders here, in farming practice and in personal history. Thomet hails from Switzerland and Lajoie from Canada. He grew up on a farm that was "by default organic," says his wife of five years. "That's just the way things used to be." Lajoie, by contrast, studied natural science in college in Quebec but discovered she preferred the warm soil to cold calculations. She moved south in 2000 and went straight into farming in Maryland. Both developed their attitudes about farming outside the influence of American industrial agriculture.

Which apparently is obvious to the locals. As one resident told me with classic rural understatement, the people in the area describe Thomet and clan as "out of the ordinary."

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