In the pastoral uplands of northern Carroll County, Md., farmers used to raise cattle, corn and soybeans — a model that has long been under economic assault by agricultural industrialization.
Stanton Gill says the small farm can secure its future by adopting a growing plan opposite to the aims of the big guys. Vast acreages of grain, a practice called monoculture, define much of Midwestern farmland, but Gill prefers to grow a diversity of fruits and vegetables. This harks back to the face of the family farm in previous centuries, except Gill has brought a contemporary twist: He grows novel and unusual varieties destined to find a niche in the rich, urban-centric local food movement.
His property, Falcon Ridge Farm, lies between Westminster and the Mason-Dixon Line and is not just a figurative but literal reinvention of northern Maryland agriculture. He and his wife, Nancy MacBride, bought the original 25 acres in 2000 on the site of an old field-crop farm. They have since expanded it to 75 acres — small by American agricultural standards but more than sufficient for today’s intensive specialty-crop approach. This includes crops virtually unknown to 19th-century homesteaders — including Chinese pears, hardy kiwi and Japanese heart nuts.
As a home gardener fascinated by the growing techniques, and plant choices, of the pros, I found a visit to the farm full of instructive fun.
The first stop was a large, plastic-covered framed greenhouse known as a high tunnel. High tunnels are popular today, but Gill’s is a bit different. It’s big — 200 feet long and, at 16½ feet high, some four feet above the norm. Its extra height and open, netted sides provide robust ventilation that prevents the buildup of mite pests.
He is growing sour-cherry varieties in rows, and he particularly likes a dark red variety from the Czech Republic named Balaton. “Big pit, excellent flavor.”
The trees are naturally stunted by growing on a dwarf understock, but they are still some 10 feet high and as much across. They are loaded with blossoms. “A tree like this,” Gill said, “will produce around 40 to 50 quarts of cherries.”
Beyond a pest named the plum curculio, the two big problems facing cherry growers in the Mid-Atlantic is the arrival of hungry birds at harvest time and the cracking of fruit caused by rain. The high tunnel fixes both; the nets exclude the birds but allow the free flow of pollinators. The plastic shields the rain, and the trees are watered with a well-fed irrigation system, fooling the cherries into thinking they are growing in a more arid climate. “I’ve re-created the Yakima Valley,” he said.
Gill points out a broad, white cardboard box on the greenhouse floor that I should avoid — it contains four colonies of commercially raised bumblebees. They pollinate the cherry trees but also the blueberry bushes that he has squeezed between them. He said that by their sheer body mass, bumblebees do a better job of moving blueberry pollen around compared with honeybees, doubling or tripling fruit yields. (I remember, when I grew blueberries, bumblebees ripping the flowers to get to the early-season nectar.)
Outside the high tunnel, he is growing a strange, small columnar tree adorned with white blossoms. He asks me what I think it is, and I suggest some tortured Amelanchier. Wrong, it’s a beach plum. Prunus maritima is a native shrub of the coast, heat-tolerant, disease-resistant and full of grape-size fruit by summer that are too tart to eat out of hand but perfect for jams and jellies. (Such processing is MacBride’s forte.)
Later, Gill takes me to a hillside orchard of Asian pears, which one thinks of as those generic round, crispy, juicy pomes from East Asia. But he says varieties have distinct characteristics, depending on which country they’re from, and he has learned to grow and sell them by named variety, much as you would apples. He has Hosui (“juicy as a peach”); Shinko, with bronze-russet skin and a three-month harvest season; and a popular Chinese variety named Ya Li, shaped more like a European pear.
Gill may have a dynamism unusual even for small farmers, because this isn’t even his day job. That would be as an entomologist at the University of Maryland, providing advice to plant nurseries and landscapers. Wearing a slightly different hat, he also teaches classes to budding farmers at Montgomery College.
On occasion, he uses the farm as a classroom, but Falcon Ridge exists primarily as a way of proving to himself and his family that a small farm with the right crops can be viable. “And I’m enjoying it,” he said.
The farm sells regularly at farmers markets in Kensington, Maple Lawn and Olney.
Reducing labor is an important aspect, and the fruit tree growing systems are all designed to avoid climbing and hauling ladders to harvest fruit. This is achieved in the Asian pear orchard by opening and lowering the branch structure of each tree. In the apple orchard, he uses dwarf trees grown with a central leader and very short branching. The trees must be supported on a somewhat elaborate system of posts and wires, but the trade-off for all this is the ability to produce large crops in small areas. You can see the value of such methods in a place where land is scarce — Japan, Holland, a city garden inside the Beltway.
He tells his students that there are hundreds of niche plants they could plant.
One orchard is devoted to hardy kiwi, a vigorous vine that is notoriously difficult to tame. Here, the vines climb to about six feet and then are encouraged to grow on to a parallel wire, where they will form a curtain of vegetation that Gill will trim.
Another field is awaiting the planting of new, blight-resistant hazelnut trees. Their growing beds will be seeded with truffles.
“In Maryland, if you’re producing corn and soybean, I’d say your days are marked,” he said.