Charlie was sitting in an easy chair in the living room of his 1935 bungalow, with the TV tuned to his Westerns movie channel, dozing, it seemed, with his cat Hank resting nearby. But he did not wake up. He was 98. It was his time.
He was the last farmer of Silver Spring, an agricultural oddity in a booming suburb becoming a high-rise city just outside Washington. For years, as the scale and demographics around him changed, Charlie hadn’t, presiding over his small plot — an Erskine Caldwell “God’s Little Acre” in the Upper South — through seasons of planting. hoeing, watering and harvesting.
You could stop by and buy from him directly, in which case he would personally dig up the desired produce — two or three varieties of lettuce, radishes, spring onions. Or, starting around 2007, you could find him at the farmers market on Ellsworth Drive with his 1987 pickup and his freshly harvested crops for sale at prices far lower than those of his “competitors.”
Charlie’s stand was a living, breathing museum of what had been, when old-time farmers sold their crops to urban and suburban customers. But under new “green” management, old-time farmers were gone, except for Charlie, replaced by longhair hippies with man buns, esoteric degrees and prices to match.
The overlords of the market had exempted Charlie from the high fees the others paid so that he, his daughter and occasional helpers could continue the time-capsule tradition that in his family dated to the 1880s. That’s when his grandfather began farming in what was then the country, in a place called Montrose. The dirt road that ran through it was the pike from Bethesda to Rockville. Today, the name remains in the four-lane Montrose Parkway, ever-congested Rockville Pike and in Pike & Rose, an attempt at urban mixed-use “place making,” artificially replacing what had once been an authentic place.
Born in 1920, Charlie graduated in 1939 from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, the county seat. He grew up across Old Georgetown Road from another farm family; their daughter would become his wife. The Koiners sold their farm in 1959 to developers who erected a discount chain department store, E.J. Korvette. The property would later become Mid-Pike Plaza and today’s “new urbanist” Pike & Rose.
Charlie continued living in Montrose, managing the estates of the landed gentry, on land that would become today’s haute-culture Strathmore music hall, and residing on land next to the mansion occupied by Sargent Shriver’s family. The Kennedys visited the place, lending an air of glamour in its last pre-suburban days.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s maternal grandfather had built a small cottage in Silver Spring in the 1930s, and Charlie, his wife and daughter moved there in 1979. He eventually bought adjoining plots that belonged to other family members, assembling the one-acre farm that survives him.
Charlie first sold his produce with other hardscrabble farmers on the sidewalk by the Silver Spring Armory, demolished in 1998 for a parking garage. The market then moved to a large parking lot, which would be replaced by an ice-skating rink, a civic center, a Whole Foods supermarket, a Strosniders hardware store and other businesses that were part of the first suburb’s revitalization.
Silver Spring had sprung, the slogan went.
FreshFarm, the new nonprofit market managers, attracted a whole new breed of ag entrepreneurs, but they grandfathered in Charlie. In time, the cultural gap narrowed, as the market masters gained a greater appreciation of the Koiners and vice versa. The old and the new, it seemed, could coexist.
But, as Silver Spring prospered, property taxes on his small farm soared. A grass-roots campaign to create an exemption for small urban farms passed the Montgomery County Council, easing the burden. Then a couple of customers offered to volunteer at the farm. They also brought in high school interns. Charlie’s little acre incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Charles Koiner Center for Urban Farming, or CKC Farming.
When Charlie turned 98 last November, the other vendors noticed, and happy birthday wishes were the order of the day. When he died a few weeks later, the Koiners were on their usual winter break. Even so, the vacant space where Charlie’s table and pickup had been was jarring.
The last farmer of Silver Spring was gone, but not his legacy.
Lynn and Gwen, a faithful longtime helper, set up the table at the market this spring. Instead of the pickup truck, there was Lynn’s little Ford Fiesta. When I stopped by the other Saturday, she didn’t have much to sell, just bottles of honey, a few herbs, radishes, spring onions.
The lettuce wasn’t out yet. That was because the volunteers hadn’t planted it, and what they had planted was too close together. Then the rototiller broke down and had to be fixed. “We just got behind a little bit,” Lynn said.
So there would be no Koiner lettuce until the fall. That seemed too long to wait for the Sierra Blush plucked right from the earth and not sold in the supermarkets but grown three blocks from the urban market in downtown Silver Spring.
“They work very hard,” Lynn said of the volunteers. “But they’re not farmers.” That was not meant as a criticism; it’s just a simple fact. And, she added, “Charlie’s not here to tell them what to do.”