David C. Hamilton and George L. DeMarr share something akin to a religious conviction for the land where they grew up, where their fathers and their fathers' fathers farmed. Both will tell you they dislike the development that is squeezing their properties in northern Charles County, one of Southern Maryland's fastest-growing areas.
Hamilton has accepted the change. He's selling, envisioning a business park, perhaps for high-tech firms, where his family farmed tobacco for generations.
DeMarr is not letting go. To him, selling would mean ripping up his roots and abandoning his father's aspirations.
The Hamilton and DeMarr families are among the oldest still farming in the northern area of Charles that local leaders hope is next in line to capitalize on the region's economic growth. Land values are surging and agribusinesses are struggling, putting longtime farmers near the border with Prince George's County in a bind.
"It's time that we older people have to make the decision to leave it or fight until the day we die and let the next generation figure it out," said Hamilton, 66, who wears a graying beard, bluejeans and a red-checked button-down to his open-space office.
"Friends of mine want to live and die on the farm. They refuse to change. I know there's an end date."
The two families -- one in Waldorf, the other in White Plains -- are separated by about five miles. They do not know each other well, but they are facing the same challenges.
No Future in Farming
Looking out Hamilton's living room window is like flipping through a family history. There is the white rambler his father and grandfather built, where Hamilton lived as a child. The 40-year-old maple he meant to cut down as a seedling now shades the picnic table.
His father, grandfather and great-grandfather are buried in a cemetery within walking distance of the farm on Berry Road.
As teenagers, Hamilton and his brother took batting practice in the middle of that two-lane road. One car, sometimes two, passed by in an afternoon.
Not anymore. Berry Road -- Route 228 -- hums nonstop with four lanes of traffic. During rush hour, it takes several minutes to pull out of Hamilton's driveway. Waldorf's shopping district has gotten so snarled that state highway officials are studying a bypass that could slice through the middle of Hamilton's ranch-style home.
"I don't like it, but the fact is we all have to make changes and grow," he said. "It's my turn to go."
To understand Hamilton's decision, it helps to know that he does not call himself a farmer. He is an agribusinessman -- part scientist, part economist, part mechanic, part lawyer.
His father, Earl, prepared him for this time from a young age. He told Hamilton there was no future in farming. He never said, " 'Look, son, don't ever sell the land.' "
Hamilton's father, who died in 1980, wanted his children to have choices. Tobacco helped pay for Hamilton's four semesters at the University of Maryland. He spent two decades as an electrical engineering technician for the Navy before finding his way back to the farm through a seed.
On weekends and evenings, Hamilton had studied up on grasses and consulted turf specialists. In 1968, he planted his first eight-acre experiment that grew into the lush, dark-green plant he would sell to new homeowners as "instant lawn."
Hamilton decided to return full time, because, he said, "This is me. It's what you believe in -- nature," which to him is "one and the same" as God.
"You see things being born. Animals, plants, things coming from nothing to death and everything in between."
From his patio, Hamilton has marveled at the migration of dozens of purple martins that arrive each spring. Their fledglings peek out from the holes of his gourd-shaped nests before taking flight. Bird experts tell Hamilton that the same martins return each year because they are imprinted by the place that has marked him, too.
There have been dry disaster years that ruined the turf, but, Hamilton said, "you like to do it whether you make money or not." That is, "until you wake up one morning and ask, 'Why?' You don't want to be grubbing stumps until you're 90."
Hamilton's four siblings left farming long ago. When his mother died in 1997, talk about the future of the farm turned serious.
He compares the 90 acres to a stock investment. As the county has grown, the land's value has outpaced its agricultural value. Two years ago, a 29-acre lot on Route 228, closer to central Waldorf, sold for $4.25 million. In August, Hamilton's neighbor sold 48 acres for $2 million.
Hamilton's watery green eyes widen when he describes the possibilities. He has planted a modern sign in front of his turf fields to promote what he hopes will be a future technology hub.
The sod farm could be sold as early as March, according to his real estate agent, but Hamilton has not decided what's next.
"What would I feel like when I have to physically go? I don't know. I can't answer that. My whole being has been here on this property."
Love It or Hate It
St. Charles Parkway -- the main route through St. Charles, a planned community of 40,000 residents -- dead-ends just beyond DeMarr Road. Bulldozers have cleared 130 acres to build tennis courts, an indoor pool and 350 homes for adults over 55.
Construction begins next month to extend the four-lane parkway on a path that will bend around the 35 acres Raymond and Betty DeMarr left their children.
George DeMarr and his brother, Eddie, have not earned much more than $1,000 a year from their land since 1992. After that last tobacco crop, George experimented. He planted apple trees and French grape vines and researched recipes for wine. The apples were too spotty, the grapes became diseased and his batches of wine were so strong that his children dubbed it "George's Moonshine Wine."
Fuel prices have made it impractical to haul other produce to suppliers. DeMarr ends up giving away most of his string beans and spinach because, he said, people are "too much in the fast lane" to drive up to the farm.
He was thrilled this summer when visitors from Fort Washington cleared out the watermelon supply at $1 apiece. On a recent weekend, he sold $150 worth of hay.
DeMarr and his wife, Darlene, pay most of their household bills with the money she makes as a computer technician for the Navy. The money he gets from fixing lawnmowers and cutting grass goes back into the farm.
"You gotta have it here," DeMarr said, patting his heart with a weathered hand. "My wife says, 'You either love it or you hate it. And if you love it, you keep doing it and work yourself to death.' "
Stepping into the DeMarrs' tobacco barn is like walking into the past. George, 49, sees his father on a tractor in the musty stripping room. Eddie, 47, hears Pop shouting, "Come on, boy," pressing him to hustle as he passes tobacco sticks into the barn.
Look up to see the brittle leaves from the tobacco George planted to humor his aging father, who died two years ago in January. Straight ahead to feel the hand-hewn beam where lanky Eddie bopped his head when he did hustle. Breathe in to smell the sweet bales of orchard and timothy hay.
"I can walk around and see my dad every day," Eddie said. "Selling this land would be leaving dad behind."
The brothers' grandfather, Claude, left his farm near Temple Hills in 1941 in search of sandy soil that would be better for tobacco, or what the old-timers call "bacca." He purchased 140 acres for $3,500 when there were 1,276 farms on 182,000 acres in Charles. At last count in 2002, there were 418 farms on 52,056 acres.
In the 1960s, their grandfather turned away the first developer. When the next one approached their father in the 1970s, the DeMarrs said he offered the farm for $1 million per square foot.
The DeMarr brothers said they are as headstrong as their father and grandfather were.
"We aren't selling,'' Eddie said. "It's family." "We're in the dirt," George said. "Our roots are in the ground just like that oak tree."
The brothers wear matching brass belt buckles engraved with the John Deere logo. They refer to each other as "down-home farm boys," even though they have both held outside jobs to subsidize the farm and two of George's daughters live in homes that are part of the St. Charles development.
They joke about "Harry Homeowners" who pay to watch nature on TV or listen to CDs with sounds from the forest. To Eddie, heaven is watching deer and turkey flocks from his modest porch with a glass of iced tea.
"People ask, 'How can you stand the quiet?' " he said. "To me, that's worth a million dollars."
One day, Eddie said, someone will make a lot more than that from his family's land. But it won't be him, he said. "As long as I'm alive, it won't be sold."