Warning: An urban hick had escaped her Beltway-enclosed pen and was running loose around the Eastern Shore. She was last spotted on the Farm and Country Driving Tour in Kent County. She wasn’t dangerous, just a little daft on topics involving agriculture, the dairy industry and furry creatures larger than a loaf of rustic bread.
“What’s the plant that’s yea high and has spinachy-green leaves?” I asked a farmhand at Redman Farms near Chestertown.
A strawberry plant, he responded.
“How often are cows milked?” I queried a third-generation dairy farmer at the Jones Family Farm near Massey.
Three times a day, she answered.
“What’s that large brown animal snuffling around in the grass?” I inquired of an Angus beef farmer at Crow Farm and Vineyard in Kennedyville, presenting him with a photo of a bushy critter I’d spotted at Chesapeake Farms Wildlife Habitat.
A groundhog, he replied, correcting my guesses of beaver or badger.
When is planting season? When do you harvest corn, soy and wheat? Can you milk an Angus cow? Can you eat a Holstein? Can I put that in my mouth?
The Qs and As piled up as I ticked off the 66 stops on the Kent County tourism office’s driving tour of its fields and farms.
Agriculture is Maryland’s largest commercial industry and major breadwinner (yes, it brings home the bacon). More than 30 percent of the state’s real estate, including a significant chunk of farmland on the upper Eastern Shore, is dedicated to growing crops and raising livestock. Kent County, for instance, is home to the state’s second-largest dairy operation, the Jones family’s business, as well as a Horizon Organic farm (check your local dairy section for the familiar cow-leaping-over-the-world logo). Many farms tout their “Century Farm” distinction (established at least 100 years ago) and have secured their future with easements.
“We’re doing everything we can to guarantee that we can farm here for a long time,” said Tammy Jones, whose husband’s grandfather founded the dairy farm in the 1930s. Farmer Brown, forever.
Despite today’s farm-to-table zeitgeist, my connection to actual farming is tertiary: I duly visit farmers markets, stroll through community gardens and perform CPR on herbs on my windowsill. By comparison, on the farm driving tour, I could see the crops in their infancy, before they reached their final adult state as buttered cobs or a splash in a cereal bowl.
“The drive is about experiencing the expansiveness of the farmland and the wide open space,” said Judy Crow, who runs the 365-acre Crow Farm and Vineyard with her husband and assorted family members and pets. “The forever fields — you can’t find these very much in the United States.”
The tour features a broad sampling of farms (crops, livestock, horses), nurseries (wholesale and retail) and wildlife and nature reserves. Most of the properties are private, and I was careful not to cross the line. I would drive slowly past the homesteads, normal speed when you’re stuck behind a tractor, or would park at the end of the long driveways. Switching my eye lenses to panoramic view, I could take in the immense fields clipped only by the horizon.
To enhance the experience, I read the snappy profiles that accompany the map downloaded from the tourism office Web site. Red Acres Farm (No. 17), for instance, is a 165-acre century farm that still uses techniques from the 1850s. It grows alfalfa and corn, and milks Holsteins twice a day. About a mile away, the Lapp Family Farm (No. 18) raises cows, goats and sheep, and operates a bakery. The family sells its baked goods at the Saturday farmers market in Chestertown, or you can make an appointment to visit and stuff your cheeks with sticky buns and cookies.
Federal Hill (No. 40) once subsisted on peaches and tobacco; today, it specializes in grain and boasts a 130-foot-long barn, the largest in the county. If I weren’t driving, I could play a drinking game based on the number of times that corn, cows and grain are mentioned.
A few spots invite the public inside, and I leaped like the Horizon cow (No. 25) at the opportunity to experience the farm from the flip side. In the late afternoon, I swung by Redman Farms to pick up some “homegrown and picked daily” produce. But I didn’t see any displays of cornucopia, only fields of corn months away from a pat of butter.
A worker encouraged me to approach the house and ask about the availability of fruits and veggies. I yelled through a screen window that I was interested in buying produce. A female voice answered back that they were closed and would open again at 10 a.m., barring rain. The next day, my namesake tropical storm swooped into the area, washing away any hope for Redman farm-to-my-plate.
As a backup plan, I returned to Lockbriar Farms, which didn’t appear on the map but deserved some attention. Unlike many operations, it let me play farmer. Today’s harvest: strawberries.
The employee directed me to her preferred plucking section, the front yard patch of Chandler berries fronting Route 297. She handed me a green cardboard container (the berries are $2 a pound) and explained that the seven-year-old farm doesn’t use pesticides, because of guests’ tendency to u-pick, u-pop in your mouth. Plus, “they go so fast, we don’t need to spray.” After one row, my hands became streaked and sticky with red juice, an occupational hazard of farming.
At the Joneses’s farm, I watched while the ladies did all the work. The cows stood still during the milking process, chewing their cud as a mechanical pump attached to their udders extracted the liquid and channeled it into overhead pipes. Men in aprons, gloves and black rubber boots scurried about, attaching or removing the tentacled gear. After a few minutes, the animals filed out as the next group took their place. More cud chewing, more rivers of milk.
“The Eastern Shore has some of the most beautiful and productive farmland you can find on the East Coast,” said Tammy, a Virginia transplant. “Kent County is a very strong agricultural area.”
The dairy farm, which the family moved from New Jersey in 1995 because of encroaching development, has grown from 20 cows to a maxed-out 1,200 Holsteins. Tammy explained that the cows are milked during 15- to 20-minute increments every eight hours; that equals at least 45 minutes of work for free room and board. The BST-free milk is distributed through a co-op. If I wanted a glass of Jones milk to go with a Lapp cookie, I’d probably have to travel south, to a Carolina or Georgia.
As a respite from the storm and an antidote to wet-barn smell, I ducked into Maryland’s Herb Basket (another personal add-on to the tour). Pots of dried herbs, many grown in the back yard, jockeyed for space on the shelves. Plump pouches rested in baskets, ready to be sprinkled on soups or salmon.
Owner Maryland Massey mixes specialty blends of teas, potpourri and spices. I trailed behind her, jotting down recipes as they rolled off her tongue. For a spring potpourri, she suggested rose petals (pink, red, white), lavender and lemon verbena leaves. For a dip, dill and dehydrated onions. To keep the mosquitoes away, patchouli and lavender. “Much better than mothballs,” she said.
In honor of my storm, I asked her to whip up a tea. She chose equal portions of peppermint, which stimulates, and lemon balm, which calms. She labeled it Andrea’s Tea. Put this in the record books: I am officially the first person to own this signature creation.
Back on the road, ready to tackle the next batch of stops, I sensed a growing confidence. As the crops rolled past my window, I identified the plants — soy, corn, wheat, strawberries — without needing to Q a farmer. I had all the As.