Back to the future: Maryland’s Springfield Farm is new old-school

From Leslie Hatfield

Last weekend, my partner Jaimes and I picked up our friend, Nikki, in a bright yellow rental car and drove about 20 miles outside of Baltimore to Springfield Farm. I'd discovered it through the Eat Well Guide (which I blogged about here last week) and had been there once before, to pick up a goose for Thanksgiving. Owners David Smith and his daughter Valerie Lafferty, who'd filled my order that day, hadn't had time to talk much — it was their last day open before the holiday, and the birds were practically flying out the door — so this time, I was on a return mission to find out more about them. And to pick up some good food, of course.

As it turned out, this family, whose ancestors settled the land in the 1600s, wowed me with the contemporary food network they've helped build. I left there feeling connected to much more than my food: this long-time Maryland family seems to know just about everyone.

Upon arriving at the farm, we headed straight into their basement store and almost immediately got carried away picking out groceries. We'd ordered a whole chicken (embarrassingly, I'm not sure what to do with the guts, but we broke off the feet and fed them raw to our dog, Belle) and 24 lbs of frozen pet food (beef hearts and cheeks), so those were waiting for us, but we added to that 2 dozen eggs, lamb burger, stew meat, bacon, and a half-gallon (in a glass bottle) of whole milk and some Baby Swiss from nearby Trickling Springs Creamery. We chatted with Valerie for a few minutes, then left our groceries in the fridge and headed out to see the animals. Valerie told us where to find them, as they'd moved (many times, I imagine) since the last time I was there. It was a very windy day, and as we set out, she jokingly warned us not to get blown over. 

It was actually the sweet (though insistent) nudging of red-haired Petunia that almost put me in the muck. I'd impressed Jaimes and Nikki with my nonchalance as I stepped over the electric fence and into the pigs' current piece of pasture, where Petunia was nestled up under a rounded shelter with her son, Piglet. Both quickly abandoned their napping, though, and came trotting over when we called them. (Note: Valerie had told me it was OK for me to go into the pasture, and "Piglet" is actually full-grown — sows with nursing piglets can be very, very unfriendly, as they should be to protect their young'uns.)

Petunia immediately started nudging me, with a level of intensity that took me by surprise; for a second, I reconsidered my casual entry and current position. A Tamworth, Petunia is descended from wild boars in England, and is not anywhere near the size a commercially-bred pig — Tamworths generally peak at about 600 pounds — but she still cuts an imposing figure. Her nudgy-ness reminded me I had a few oranges in my bag (an aha! moment for me) and I stepped back over the fence, watched them root around for a few more minutes, then headed off to see some birds.

Up the hill from the pigs, the laying hens, a cross between commercial breeds Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White, were not quite so exotic. The family buys them from commercial suppliers, and in so doing, removes thousands of birds every year from a future almost sure to be spent in a CAFO (they currently keep about 2,000 layers and raise around 14,000 meat birds each year). They didn't seem to like us as much as the pigs, although our presence did bring most of them out of the large coop where they'd been huddled up to avoid the wind, which was fierce up there. It was getting to the geese, too, a gaggle of whom were hunkered down, heads tucked neatly into feathered bodies, just outside the chicken pen. It was getting to us, too, so we skipped the other animals (depending on the time of year, in addition to the pigs, chickens, geese and ducks, you'll also find cattle, rabbit, lamb, and quail being raised at Springfield) and headed down the hill, stopping to say a second goodbye to Piglet and Petunia, who'd climbed through the trees to follow us, and again at the pond to see the ducks, on our way back to the store.

David Smith, who held his cat, Fifi, to his chest for the entire length of our conversation, is not the image that springs to mind when I picture a savvy networker, but he is. A former Army man turned marketer (aha! again) turned farmer, he now serves as the president of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), and perhaps more impressively, his farm serves as the hub of a local network of 40 farms. Not all of these farms are strictly grass-fed or organic, but all are truly free range and "natural," and he trusts in their practices enough to blend their products with his own and ensure virtually uninterrupted distribution of sustainably and humanely-raised meat and eggs to some 40 restaurants, small markets and universities in the Chesapeake region, as well as direct customers.

Springfield Farm has been in David's family for over 300 years, and today, three generations live and work on its 67 acres of rolling hillside. David runs the farm with the help of his daughters Valerie Lafferty and Bridget Mason, as well as their families. When I asked how the farm had evolved over the years, he told me that although he just moved back there in 1997 and started farming in earnest a few years later — he raised livestock as 4H projects as a child, but his parents leased most of the land out, and he and wife Lily moved around for over 30 years — he imagines that his natural methods mirror those of ancestors. When I mentioned "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and referenced Polyface Farm, his face lit up and he told me that he had learned much of what he knows from Joel Salatin. He talked about the "fresh salad bar" method, letting the pigs "exercise their piggy-ness," and how each species plays a specific role in evenly fertilizing the fields. I expressed my admiration for the network he's built up, and we excitedly tossed around ideas for more local food connections, including some ideas for getting more good food into my Highlandtown neighborhood. I could easily have talked to David and Valerie for a few more hours, but I let them get back to work and headed home.

That night, as we drove back into the city, we passed the old National Bohemian Brewery, still topped by a huge neon impression of its adorable round-faced mascot, the boyish counterpart to the Utz girl (and if you believe the ads of a jewelry store downtown, her fiance, too). I started thinking about Baltimore's old local food system — operations for Utz and Natty Boh moved out of Baltimore a long time ago, along with a lot of other jobs — and I pictured beehived "hons," a la Hairspray, supplementing barbecues with locally-produced chips and beer.

And then I thought further back, and I tried to picture what the area had been like when David Smith's family arrived. I thought about the struggles they must have faced as they settled into their land, and wondered whether the elements and other challenges seemed as formidable then as our out-of-control, centralized, subsidized, multi-national food system does to us these days. As we pulled our box of food out of the trunk of that bright yellow car, I felt hopeful that forward-thinking networkers with old-timey farm methods (and the retrovores who help support them) might just have a shot at creating a better future here in the Charm.

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