Down on the Farm

Down on the Farm

rocklands sheepBETHESDA MAGAZINE

Students who graduate from Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, where SAT scores are typically among the highest in the county’s public schools, often end up pursuing jobs in high-paying careers after college. Greg Glenn had a different idea: He came home to be a farmer.

Friends who watched him fall in love with outdoor life think “it’s fitting,” Glenn says, smiling, as he stands in a pasture on his Poolesville organic farm. “Some of them come out and enjoy this place.”

On an early moring in April, he’s whistling, shouting and cooing at 20 uncooperative hair sheep, trying to shoo them from one pasture to another. The farm’s red mud stains his tattered jeans, work boots and the creases of his hands—matching the red of his hair and beard, and even his cheeks on this cool day—as he performs the morning’s chores of feeding, watering and rotating the sheep, chickens and cows.

“They’re not like cattle,” Glenn says, ushering the sheep from the pasture where they’ve gnawed long grass to putting-green length. “Cattle like to be led from the front. Sheep like to be led from behind.”

rocklands chicksGlenn’s years at Whitman and those spent earning a degree in agriculture economics at Virginia Tech never taught him that, or how to use chickens as natural manure spreaders, or how to turn hog bedding into compost. When Glenn started Rocklands Farm, a chemical-free family operation in 2010, his knowledge of farming was gleaned mostly from books, the Internet and picking the brains of local farmers willing to help the new guy.

Four years later, he’s become a mentor to others, and his operation selling natural beef, pork, lamb, chickens, eggs, vegetables and even wine has become a model.

Rocklands Farm is “our poster child for how we’d like to see new family farms run out here,” says Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, which promotes rural preservation.

At 28, Glenn is the new face of farming. As older generations of farmers retire, new farmers in Montgomery County and across the country are often young, educated urbanites and office workers drawn to the lifestyle, despite having little or no no farming experience, Taylor says. “There’s a real resurgence of people wanting to grow their own food.”

They’re more likely to raise rows of organic heirloom tomatoes than acres of soybeans, and more interested in organics than genetically modified seeds. They are also more likely to sell at farmers markets than to supply fast-food chains, relying on high prices paid by health-conscious shoppers, and often some off-farm income, to get by.

They’re people like Glenn, who was raised in Bethesda and whose mission is to nurture and engage his customers, as well as feed them.

“We want them to have that intimate connection with their farmer,” Glenn says. “To see where their food comes from. How it’s grown. How it’s raised. To us that’s really important. To a lot of our customers it’s also really important.”

rocklands houseGlenn and his wife, Anna, also 28, live on the farm in an outbuilding with peeling red paint and white-framed windows, where they raise their 1½-year-old son, Fritz. A second child is due in November. Glenn’s parents live at the top of a grassy hill in an elegant farmhouse built nearly a century and a half ago with red stone blocks from the same nearby quarry used to build the Smithsonian Castle, Glenn said.

Glenn sees to the livestock. Joel and Megan Barr, friends from college, live a mile down the road and raise the vegetables. Anna is the education manager, running a summer camp and working with local schoolchildren and college students on field trips. Glenn’s mother handles weddings and events, like concerts and community farm dinners. His father began the vineyard, which is becoming a central feature of the farm. Rocklands already bottles wine from other vineyards’ grapes, an operation overseen by family friend TJ Fleming of Silver Spring, a middle school science teacher turned vintner. The Glenns hope to be making wine exclusively from their own grapes in five years.

It’s a diverse mix of activities, but an increasingly common approach as small farms try to stay afloat. Like any new business, Glenn says, the early years have been lean. Startup costs were high, involving everything from livestock to wine vats, tractors and bottle corkers.

He and Anna get by on salaries that would qualify as poverty wages. But the farm provides housing and food—for them and other workers who also live on or near the farm. Part-timers who work at the on-site market make better than minimum wage, he says. Business is booming; the farm sells everything it raises, and there are plans to expand in order to increase production.

Demand for local food is far greater than what area farmers can supply, says Jeremy Criss, the county’s agriculture services manager. “But it’s hard work, and low returns on your investments, especially in the beginning.”

The farm is Glenn’s life—and the dream of his father, Dr. Greg Glenn, a chief medical officer at a biotech firm who bought the historic property in 2003 and moved his family there after having lived in Bethesda for 11 years.

Father and son were chopping wood in the front yard of their MacArthur Boulevard home one afternoon when the elder Glenn noticed that his teenage son didn’t know how to swing an ax. He was reminded of himself as a boy: a city kid raised in metropolises around the world thanks to his father’s globe-trotting NASA career. A summer spent waking before dawn and working 12 hours a day as a 16-year-old on his grandparents’ Idaho farm changed his life.

“That feeling of gaining confidence and getting things done was such a different experience,” says the elder Glenn. He wanted the same for his son.

His wife, Janis, was out driving when she spied the 35-acre farm for sale. It sat 2 miles north of the Potomac River, across a metal bridge that spans Seneca Creek, part of what had been known in the 19th century as Rockland (without the “s”) Farm. Once an area of working farms that moved crops to market on the nearby C&O Canal, the region became better known for horse estates.

The setting was stunning, though the farm was a wreck, with overgrown fields and crumbling buildings. “But we could see what it could become,” says Dr. Glenn, who began planting trees and the vineyard in hopes of seeing the property perform like a farm again. “It’s really gratifying to be out here more than a decade from that and see that it’s turned into this working, thriving farm.”

rocklands signHis son took to country life, though his studies at Virginia Tech focused more on international markets than cattle wrangling. Glenn was interested in foreign development work, but a trip to his aunt’s dairy farm in Kenya inspired him to see farming as a way of life back home. His aunt’s operation wasn’t just a farm, he realized, but a central part of the community.

“There’s something a little more than dollars involved in making a living farm,” Glenn says. “It’s about feeding people. It’s about nourishing people. It’s about blessing people. That’s what really interested me: blessing people through farming.”

Glenn uses words like “blessing” and “bounty” the way some farmers rattle off commodity prices. He uses terms like “holistic” and “diversity” in describing his farm. One of his favorite words is “reverence,” which he uses liberally when talking about the land and animals. A devout Christian like many at the farm, Glenn says he seeks to cultivate a spiritual connection with the land as much as raise crops. That’s why he requires customers to come to the farm to buy its products, so they can see the animals grazing and the fields where the crops are grown.

“We want to connect people back to the land where the harvest comes from,” he says. “…That’s why the craft of farming is really important, and the stewardship, the caring for the land, is important.”

His aunt in Kenya changed Glenn’s life in other ways. When Anna, a friend of the aunt from back home in Washington state, came to work at the farm in Kenya, Greg’s aunt played long-distance matchmaker. Greg and Anna began exchanging emails and fell in love electronically, the way couples once courted by mail.

“After six months, I kind of knew I wanted to marry him, and I hadn’t met him,” says Anna, who wears her long blond hair in a braid to the side.

The two first met at the Seattle airport in 2010 when she flew back to Washington state for a visit. A few months later, Greg, who had already started Rocklands Farm, returned to Kenya and proposed. Anna accepted. It seemed a perfect match in more ways than one: She wanted to teach and dreamed of farming, and could pursue both passions with Glenn at his farm.

Glenn had started Rocklands a year earlier with two Virginia Tech friends who were more into farming than he was. Nick Wilson, an architecture major, had built a couple of buildings at the farm for his senior thesis. Shawn Eubank, a business finance major, became interested in farming after working at a farm stand.

Wilson left after a year to join an architectural firm, so the Barrs signed on to raise the vegetables, even though neither had farmed. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone do that,” Joel Barr says, laughing. “It was a hard year.”

Tall and thin with cool blue eyes, an orange beard, and an enormous straw hat to block the sun, Joel, 24, was an English major who hadn’t planned on being a farmer. He has found a new vocation.

“Here on the farm you’re dealing with nature and the environment to produce an absolutely necessary thing,” he says. “We all eat three meals a day, and that food has to come from the land.”

Rocklands sits in Montgomery County’s 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve. Although the county is better known for biotech firms and suburbs, a third of it is set aside with regulations to protect farmland against creeping subdivisions. Most county farms are large operations that grow commodity crops—wheat, feed corn and soybeans—but small farms are on the rise.

The Glenn family had one huge advantage over others interested in starting a farm in the county—it already owned the land.

“Most of us can’t afford to buy a huge bunch of land in Montgomery County,” says Sarah Miller, who oversees the county’s New Farmer Pilot Project, which links beginner farmers with landowners willing to lease, and with mentors willing to lend their knowledge.

Rocklands relies on natural techniques that make the farm an ecosystem. Cows graze section by section to replicate the way bison once roamed the Great Plains, chewing grass down to stubs before moving on. Their manure acts as natural fertilizer. When the herd moves on, the chickens move in, their mobile henhouse in tow, their pecking and scratching acting as natural manure spreaders. The hogs eat discarded food from Manna Food Center, a food bank in Gaithersburg, and spent grains from a couple of Washington, D.C., breweries. Their bedding becomes compost. The sheep mow the lawn.

Positioning himself behind the herd of hair sheep, Glenn waves his arms to drive them into the next pasture. They ignore him, escape over a sagging bit of fence line, and flow instead into the vineyard. Scout, the border collie-Australian shepherd mix at his feet, proves more adept at chasing a slobbery tennis ball than herding sheep. Bone Dog, an aging golden retriever, displays no interest at all.

“Change of plans,” Glenn sighs.

Waving his arms and shouting, he hustles the sheep onto the front lawn. Shaggy and disheveled, the sheep, which grow hair instead of wool, look out of place in front of the stately farmhouse, with a chimney in each corner and a white widow’s walk that overlooks the land.

“Happy animals,” Glenn says as he raises a wire fence in place behind the sheep. For him, it’s what farming is all about.