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Looking to the next harvest: As owner of tiny farm nears 100, volunteers offer help

Charlie Koiner, 97, right, accompanied by volunteer Evelyn Jemionek, 70, attends to his one-acre urban farm in downtown Silver Spring, Md. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Lynn Koiner picked her way through the tiny urban farm in Silver Spring that bears her family’s name, undaunted by the day’s drizzle.

Her father, 97-year-old Charlie Koiner, leaned against the tailgate of his pickup truck as she showed off the land’s largesse: unripe green tomatoes nestled on plants as tall as a person, shiny purple eggplants, multicolored zinnias blooming prettily in rows.

Koiner has been farming the one-acre plot at the corner of Grove and Easley streets since the early 1980s, joined later by his daughter, now 72. They know they can’t keep doing it forever.

But they would love to preserve their agricultural oasis even as Silver Spring continues to grow around it. And they may have found a lifeline, thanks to Kate Medina, a former biology teacher who discovered the farm on her walks through the neighborhood, about a mile north of the border with the District.

In May, Medina co-founded the Charles Koiner Center for Urban Farming, which recruits interns to help work the land, facilitates school field trips, and is working to establish an easement that would prevent nonagricultural use of the land for the next five centuries.

The goal, she said, is to “honor what Charlie has been doing all these years, and to make sure it continues even as Charlie and Lynn age.”

“They were really trying to keep the farm alive, keep it going. But it was getting harder and harder,” Medina said. “Lynn said she was getting tired. The farm was starting to get overgrown.”

Hannah Sholder, another co-founder, said ownership of the land eventually could go to a trust connected to the center, which hopes to have its nonprofit status in place by fall.

“I’m lucky to have the help. I wouldn’t be able to do it all myself,” said Charlie Koiner, who was born on a farm in what is now North Bethesda, where the tony mixed-use Pike and Rose development was built a few years back. He managed another farm in North Bethesda for decades before moving to Silver Spring.

Lynn Koiner said her father, who still works the farm every day, “can’t manage as much stuff as he used to grow. Having the interns come here has been a godsend.”

She is looking forward to posting signs on the farm once the easement is in place, informing would-be land speculators that the property can be used only for farming.

The Koiners for years have fended off offers from developers wanting to purchase the land, just steps from Silver Spring’s bustling business district.

“I get letters from people wanting to buy the place two to three times a month,” Charlie Koiner said. “People are always wanting to buy it, but I don’t want to see it built up.”

Meanwhile, the Koiners have taken advantage of a law the Montgomery County Council passed last year that provides a tax credit for small urban agricultural farms that comprise less than three acres and are in active use.

They had been paying about $19,000 a year in property taxes before the law; Medina said they just received their first tax credit of $14,000 from the county.

Council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) said he initially thought about tailoring the legislation specifically for the Koiners, but then later broadened it to include other potential urban agricultural spaces.

“If we can protect it by fixing its taxes so it doesn’t just get bought up and redeveloped, and if they can continue to farm on that property and turn it into a community land trust to keep it in agriculture even beyond the Koiners, that’s good for the whole community,” Hucker said.

Medina said she thinks she has heard of one other urban farm that fits the definition in the county, but Hucker said he thinks the Koiner Farm is the only parcel that has qualified for the credit so far.

Produce from the farm is sold at the Silver Spring farmers market on weekends, as well as at a small wooden stand at the farm that volunteers built. The father and daughter also grow fruits and vegetables to show at the annual county fair.

Lynn Koiner loves the herb garden and persimmon trees, while her father is more partial to the lettuces and tomatoes — “two big sellers,” he explained.

The farm is known for its variety of lettuces — especially Sierra Blush, hardy enough to survive a freeze and thaw — and its reasonable prices. Tomatoes are $2 a pound. Herbs can be had for $1 a bunch.

“I just figure that’s enough,” Charlie Koiner said. “I’m just glad to let people have them at that price.”