The Wash

Urban development forces Anne Arundel County farmers to adapt

A historic farming community between two growing capitals is at a crossroads

“I’ve always wanted to farm,” Kayla Griffith says.

It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-October, and she’s just returned to her family farm in Lothian, Maryland, after delivering a load of pumpkins. She says the only thing that gives her pause is a simple question: “Is it gonna be feasible to farm here?”

As Kayla drives past the little white farmhouse just off the two-lane road and up toward a barn, the navigation system in her new SUV implores her to “proceed to the route.” She laughs and dismisses the app. “I know how to get home.”

Lothian is a historic farming community in Anne Arundel County that sits between two capital cities: Washington and Annapolis. The area’s bucolic charm and relatively cheap land have attracted homebuyers looking to escape the city, bringing with them a confluence of factors that many farmers say could push them off the land their families have worked for generations.

The main culprits are higher land prices, more traffic and a rise in crop damage from deer, driven onto farmland as new housing developments cut into wooded areas. Agriculture in Anne Arundel County is at a crossroads.

Kayla Griffith (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

Up at the barn, Kayla trades her SUV for a Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle and heads to the pumpkin patch. Tomorrow, she’s delivering 150 of the plump, white “snowball” pumpkins for other farms to sell at fall festivals.

“We usually plant pumpkins in early to mid-June,” she explains. “But this year, because the weather was so bad, these didn’t get planted until mid-July. So the fact that I have any is really awesome.”

(Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

‘A very, very long history.’

Kayla’s family has been farming the same 330-acre plot of land in Anne Arundel County for more than a century. Today, with a 70-acre satellite farm plus rented land, they plant about 800 acres of mostly corn and soybeans. When Kayla came back to Lothian from graduate school in 2015, she became the fifth generation to work the land and started growing the produce she sells at local farmers markets.

Kayla says she’s conflicted about taking over the family farm. It’s something I still grapple with,” she says. “And not because I don’t want to take it over.”

Local farms aren’t just a scenic touch to the Washington area. They’re also a bulwark against an increasingly important issue not many Americans think about: food security. “We just take it for granted that the West is always going to be this productive breadbasket,” said Dave Meyers, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, but “we typically only have a two-year supply of grain in the U.S.”

Unlike European countries that learned to protect their farmland after World Wars I and II exposed their vulnerability, the U.S. “is still going freewheel with our development in a lot of cases, and not thinking strategically about how much farmland we should have around the city of Baltimore, around the city of Washington,” he said.

Jeff Griffith (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

 Audio: Jeff Griffith on how Anne Arundel farms will have to change to keep up

Down the road at the Griffiths’ satellite farm, Kayla’s dad Jeff drives his tractor through a recently harvested cornfield, spreading cover crop that will limit soil erosion and help control weeds until next season’s planting. It’s part of the “no-till” farming practices he helped pioneer in the area after coming home from the University of Maryland in 1983.

“I’ve been farming since I could crawl,” says Jeff, 58. “My grandfather’s father was a tenant farmer.” When the landowner was looking to sell his several plots of land, “he picked the one that we live on and that’s where we’ve been ever since.”

 

Old tobacco barns serve as a reminder of Anne Arundel’s prior transformation (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

The end of an era

After a few laps around the cornfield on his tractor, Jeff stops beside a tall barn overgrown with briars, one of many like it that are still scattered across Anne Arundel County’s verdant hills and cornfields. They were designed only to store tobacco. “That’s the saddest part about the tobacco buyout,” he says, pointing at the dilapidated structure.

For decades, he and his forebears grew tobacco, long a major cash crop in southern Maryland that required less land than corn or soybeans. But amid rising public awareness of the dangers of cigarettes, the tobacco industry began to tank. Jeff saw the writing on the wall.

“I knew it was gonna kill the market,” he recalls. Maryland’s government used money from a nationwide lawsuit against tobacco companies to create a buyout program for farmers in 1999. The Griffiths accepted the state’s offer and began growing grains.

Grain production on Hopkins Family Farm (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

Grain farming has its pros and cons, Kayla explains. “Grains are easiest to do on a large scale. You’ll see the older generation doing them because it’s not physically intensive.” Grain planting and harvesting can be done by machine, unlike pumpkins and other vegetables that require hand cultivation.

But large-scale farming requires major capital expenses. “We’re getting to the point where inputs and equipment are so expensive that if the [grain] prices don’t increase, you’re either gonna have to do something else or get more land, and there’s not a lot of land around here,” she says.

“This farm here is 45 acres,” Jeff says of his cornfield. “You go to the [Eastern] Shore and their littlest fields are 45, 50 acres. The big fields are 150 acres. It’s hard to compete.”

Instead, Kayla — who has a master’s degree in agronomy and started a doctoral program before choosing to come home to the farm — works part time as a nutrient management adviser at a University of Maryland extension office. She now helps other farmers navigate state regulations, just one example of farming’s increasing complexity.

“When you become a farmer, you’re not just going out to the field and growing a crop,” Kayla says. “If you aren’t well-versed in political things or social things, you can have a hard time. Everything that happens impacts us.” The recent expiration of the federal farm bill, for instance, left important programs in jeopardy

 

Chickens in a moveable free-range pen at Floating Lotus Farmstead (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

‘The rural area is just gonna go away’

Kayla and other local farmers say the new arrivals have put extra pressure on their already-squeezed industry.

The most immediate danger, she says, comes from increased traffic. Farmers rely on narrow, two-lane roads to move their tractors and other equipment between fields. Unlike the longtime residents who respect the farmers’ right of way, commuters rushing to work often zip past or even hit farm vehicles, says Jerrett Collinson, Kayla’s cousin who farms in nearby Harwood.

“Pretty much every time we take the tractor down the road somebody flips us off, yells out the window, cussing at us,” he says. His sister-in-law, Brittany, ferries horses from farm to farm in a double-wide trailer. “Every time I take the horses out, I’m thinking, ‘Is this gonna be the day that I get hit?’” she says.

Farmers say driving farm equipment down country roads is more dangerous now than ever (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

No reliable data exists on farm vehicle collisions in the state.The Maryland Soybean Board commissioned an independent study to quantify the problem, but it is still in progress. Kayla says farmers brought their complaints to police and elected officials, but they haven’t initiated new safety measures.

The influx of homebuyers has also driven up land prices and incentivized landowners to sell farmland to developers.

And as houses replace woodlands, deer populations have migrated to farms where they feast on crops. “I know other farmers in the region who have lost tens of thousands of dollars of fresh produce” due to deer, Kayla says. “We lose just as much in corn and soybeans.”

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources allows farmers to hunt deer on their land year-round, but farmers “are suffering damage, no question about it,” says Brian Eyler, who leads the deer project for Maryland DNR.

“When you have these developments come in, they’re great deer habitat because they provide a refuge. The deer next door may have been hunted and controlled previously, but if you have a housing development come in and take away hunting, that can result in more damage on the adjacent farm,” Eyler says.

Kayla says she harbors no ill will towards her new neighbors. Her worries aren’t personal. “People move here because they want to be in a rural area, but we can’t sustain ourselves, so the rural area is just gonna go away.”

Her dad is a little more optimistic about the future of farming in Anne Arundel County. “It’s changing every day,” says Jeff. “You can see the urban sprawl is catching up to us. I think people are gonna be farming for a long time here, but you’re gonna have to do things different.” Rather than sell corn to Eastern Shore chicken farms or soybeans to China, “you’re gonna have to use your customers you got right here.”

 

Adam and Jocelyne Cottrell of Floating Lotus Farmstead (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

‘We threw away our jobs and hopped into young farming’

On a rainy Sunday at the Anne Arundel County farmers market, a steady stream of customers flows through Adam and Jocelyne Cottrell’s stand for their peppers, eggplants and herbs. A banner hanging behind them bears the flower logo Jocelyne designed for Floating Lotus Farmstead, a name Adam says invokes a flower emerging through mud.

Audio: Adam and Jocelyne Cottrell on quitting their jobs to become farmers

Unlike many of their stall neighbors at the market, the Cottrells don’t come from farm families. Prior to moving from Annapolis to an 1800s farmhouse, Adam was an electrician and Jocelyne worked as a makeup artist. “We hated our jobs,” says Adam. “And we looked out back, and there was a bunch of land. It was just kind of a no-brainer.”

Relying on handyman skills he developed as an electrician — and a healthy dose of stubborn entrepreneurial spirit — Adam got a small vegetable operation up and running. Jocelyne joined him in the fields soon after, and they now farm 4.5 acres on two plots of rented land.

“They love that we’re a young couple,” Adam says of their customers. “They love that we put everything on the table. We threw away our jobs and hopped into young farming.”

Fresh herbs from the Floating Lotus Farmstead at the Anne Arundel farmers market (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

But even new, entrepreneurial farmers like the Cottrells must deal with farming’s perennial challenges. “This year’s been horrible,” Adam says of their crop yields, echoing a sentiment shared by many farmers in the area. “The weather’s been… dramatic. And we’re still amateurs so we don’t have all the tools to do it properly.”

Land prices are as much of a concern for the Cottrells as for the Griffiths. “Property is really expensive,” Adam says. “A lot of us are forced to rent, and that creates a lot of insecurities in what to plant.” For instance, they hesitate to plant perennial crops that could take multiple years to see a return on investment.

At their 2-acre satellite farm down the road, “deer have eaten everything,” Jocelyne says, exasperated. “They’ll take bites out of every melon and just spit it out. For no reason!”

The Cottrells represent a new breed of farmer: self-taught, first-generation growers drawn to the more independent, though challenging, lifestyle that comes with working the land. They say that for them, development in the area is a mixed bag. Rising land prices make it unlikely they’ll be able to buy their own property soon, but more neighbors means more customers.

What they lack in experience they make up for in plenty of social media savvy — Instagram posts captioned with #farmlife and #eatyourgreens promote their stand on market days — and plenty of energy.

Molly, the Cottrells’ dog, follows them on a tour of their farm (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

The Cottrells pride themselves on sustainable, chemical-free farming. One of their regulars proclaims their methods superior to the large-scale produce available a few stalls down, but Adam makes it clear that he has no hard feelings for his fellow grower.

“They’ve been at it for, like, 120 years on the same land, multiple generations. What a beautiful idea!” Adam and Jocelyne say they hope to one day pass on land they’ve cultivated with sustainable practices on to their own children.

Once they decided to try farming, Adam says he spent hours poring over a seed catalog and testing different growing methods. Then he moved on to reading books and blogs and watching YouTube videos by organic farming gurus. Now the Cottrells are part of an international community of #homesteaders striving for a sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle, and there’s always more to learn.

Adam and Jocelyne Cottrell built their hoop houses by hand, with the help of online tutorials (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

“As a farmer,” he says, “you gotta wear a thousand hats. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or your 50th year. You’re the boss of a company, you’re the financial guy, you’re an instructor. Then you have to sell [your produce], so then you gotta be a good people person.”

Yet even faced with these challenges, the Cottrells haven’t lost their excitement for their new lifestyle and career.

“It’s good work. It’s wholesome work,” says Jocelyne. “At the end of the day we’re exhausted, but we’re like, ‘Dude, yes!’ Going to bed at the end of the day and feeling good about what you did is what does it for us.”

Back at the farmstead, she offers a final word of advice: “For anybody inspired to do it, just dive in. That’s all I have to say. It’s a good life.”

 

Josh Tice and his brother Cody load feed on their family farm in Harwood, Md. (Orion Donovan-Smith / The Wash)

The next generation

On a crisp October day after school, Bryan Ogilvie, 16, comes to his Southern High School classmate Josh Tice’s family farm to help with chores. Bryan, who drives a vintage pickup with an American flag mounted to the tailgate, says most of his friends spend free afternoons cruising the country roads or playing video games. “They’d rather be doing something else” than feeding chickens or mucking stables, he says. “I think they’re really missing out.”

Bryan’s family doesn’t farm, but he’s learned the ropes through the local 4-H club, and the Tices lend him space in their pens to raise hogs. The Tice family raises pigs, chickens, sheep and cattle in muddy pens and open pastures without steroids or genetically modified feed, all-natural practices that Josh and Bryan recognize as comparative advantage. “No-GMO and steroid-free meats are becoming very popular. There’s a big demand for those,” says Josh.

“I used to think all the store-bought food was fine,” adds Bryan. “Then I started getting into 4-H and eating the actual stuff and it just tastes so much better — and it’s a lot better for you.”  

The highlight of 4-H for both boys is the annual county fair, where students’ animals can bring in hundreds or even thousands of dollars at auction. “It not only helps you get money and save up for things like college,” says Josh. “It also teaches you responsibility and important life skills” like developing business plans and the discipline it takes to raise a healthy animal.

Audio: High-schoolers Josh Tice and Brian Ogilvie on why they raise animals

Dr. Stacy Eckels, Southern’s Future Farmers of America advisor, says when she was in high school in nearby Montgomery County, most of her classmates were farm kids who learned the trade from an early age and could inherit the most valuable asset in agriculture — land.

Most of her students today don’t have that advantage, though. As farmland becomes ever-more scarce, she hopes her students will realize that “they don’t have to own property to be successful in agriculture.” Among her many projects with students is retooling a 100-year-old dairy barn into stalls where the non-farm kids can learn to raise animals.

It will take creative collaborations like this to pass farming on to the next generation in Anne Arundel County. “We’re fortunate enough to have the family farm,” says the Tice matriarch, Deana. “But the family farm is not big enough to support the next generation.” Raising animals and tending the farm is second nature for her kids, but “where are they gonna be able to find that chunk of land that they can afford to continue?” she wonders.

Josh says it’s too soon to tell if he wants to go into farming as a full-time career. Bryan says that while he hopes to one day own some land where he can hunt and enjoy the open air, he’s not too concerned about the rising prices. “Around here,” he says, “your neighbors are your family.”

Orion Donovan-Smith

Orion Donovan-Smith

Kip Dooley

Kip Dooley

I'm a former high school teacher studying investigative and multimedia journalism in Washington, D.C.

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