Shlagels hammer home ag education

AFP Correspondent

WALDORF, Md. (Nov. 1, 2016) — Charles County farmers Russell and Eileen Shlagel almost quit doing field trips and tours on their farm. What kept them going was the need they saw for agriculture education.
“Children are five or six generations removed from the farm and think milk magically comes from the food store,” Russell said. “It’s our lowest profit center, but we do it for the educational component.”
Shlagel Farms draws in groups from all over Southern Maryland and Washington D.C.
Shlagel Farms is about 30 miles south of Washington D.C., making it easily accessible for the public. Shlagel estimated that the farm drew in 16,000 visitors over a six week period in the spring for pick your own strawberries.
This fall, he expects they’ll see 2,500 visitors who mostly come in for the pumpkin patch or field trips and private farm tours.
“I have no interest in turning into a farm based amusement park. I consider us growers first and foremost. We incorporate (farm tours) into our main mission to enhance what we’re doing,” Russell said.
Christine Derwin lives in Capitol Hill and said she’s been bringing her children, age 4 and 6, to the farm for several years.
“It’s the quintessential farm experience,” Derwin said. “We live in the middle of the city. We come here - it’s 30 minutes from our house - and it broadens their horizons.”
Washington, D.C. mom, Anne Thomas agreed. She grew up in Baltimore County and saw many farms disappear.
“I’m glad to see farms like this that are able to stay in the family for 100 years and stay profitable,” Thomas said.
The education isn’t just for the children.
Thomas said she was impressed to see the conservation techniques the Shlagels use including plastic mulch to target water and nutrients to the crops.
“It’s easy for people to think farmers spray willy nilly. They have no idea,” Eileen Shlagel said. “They come here and see how much we conserve and they think maybe it’s not just us, maybe all farmers do it this way.”
Russell is the third generation farmer in his family and works full time on the farm along side his wife and sons. The farm’s sustainability was recently recognized by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot who paid a visited and toured Shlagel Farms on Oct. 20 to deliver a citation in recognition of the farm’s 105-year contribution to agriculture.
“We’re still very much a working family farm,” Russell said.
He said they grow about 100 acres of fruits and vegetables. Sixty percent, he estimated goes to wholesale market. Their major buyer is Giant Foods. They also sell to distributors who place their produce in Marriott hotels, smaller retail stores, and restaurants like Sweet Greens.
Local produce is in high demand now, but Russell said it wasn’t always that way. He and his wife transitioned their farm out of tobacco in the late 1980s. They had a tremendous learning curve in the early years when they started trying to grow produce.
“Local produce had a reputation of being substandard quality and in some ways it was,” he said.
They got a contract with Giant Foods in 1993.
“Giant Food was on the cutting edge of the local food movement in the Baltimore Washington area,” Shlagel said. “As it grew, we were poised in a really good position and already ahead of the learning curve.”
The Shlagels’ sons manage the retail side of the farm operation, marketing the remaining 40 percent of the farm’s produce through farmers’ markets and a buyer’s club.
His son, Karl recently added beef and pork to the farm’s product mix.
“They’re not willing to work for free anymore,” Russell said of his sons. “The young people have new ideas, enthusiasm and spring in their step. The older people can provide stability and financial support to take those ideas and make them work profitably.”
The Shlagels implement many best management practices on the farm. Russell Shlagel said he will continue to try and keep the farm ahead of the curve. Last year, the farm was certified under the USDA Produce GAPs Harmonized Audit.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Russell said. “We’re so, so market rich in this area, but we’re limited by land base. We have to focus on high value crops and market them the best way possible to get the most boxes per acre and most dollars per box.”