by Marian Burros, photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
Most small farmers learn quickly that they need a job off the farm in order to afford life on it. Marc Grossman has turned that idea on its head: he has a full-time job as a high school history and government teacher but supplements his income by farming.
“When I was a kid in Ohio, we always had a big garden,” he said. ”I started working in it when I was seven.” He always wanted to retain that connection to the land. And through trial and error—not to mention luck—he found an unexpected way to do it: he joined forces with Our House, a residential job training center that is an alternative to Maryland’s juvenile justice system.
The nonprofit owns 140 acres in Brookeville, Md., one of the few spaces in upper Montgomery County that hasn’t been turned into tract housing or a strip mall.
“Small farmers can’t afford to buy land around here because it’s too expensive,” Grossman said, sitting in the restored old home that serves as headquarters for the center for at-risk teenage boys who are either homeless, abandoned, abused, or orphaned.
Before he lucked in to the arrangement he tried to farm on his own, renting six community garden plots to produce a boutique salad mix. That earned him enough money to break even in 2007.
A year later he met another new farmer, John Brill, at the Olney Farmers Market. Brill wasn’t doing much better. Brill, who already had a relationship with Our House and was farming one-third acre there, had another half-acre in Prince George’s County. They went into business together, but Grossman describes farming in two widely separated places as “insane.”
By 2010 the Prince George’s County acreage was jettisoned and together they worked one and half acres at Our House. Brill has since reduced his involvement in the farm, and Grossman is pressing ahead on his own. It is in the process of being certified organic.
In exchange for the land, some water resources, and the use of a tractor, boys at Our House are offered opportunities to work in the garden. Grossman pays them for their work, and shares with them some crops and eggs.
The program’s executive director, Richard Bienvenue, is sold on the farm component, and slowly Our House is incorporating an agricultural element into its standard program.
“Farming is a different way to approach kids,” he said. “It’s a different way to approach life, the meaning of life.
“The kids who come here are so abused, they come here with a chip on their shoulder. Pulling weeds is therapeutic.
“It’s wonderful to plant a seed and see it grow. It’s a different approach to healing.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Stephanie Jones, one of the two farm managers who work with the boys.
“Gardening is an escape from stress,” she said. “The peace of working outside is relaxing.”
About half the 16 current residents choose to work in the garden, take care of the chickens or of the bees—some just for the money. But working as farmers has real life applications, Jones said. “For many it’s their first job application. And we can give them individual attention,” something many of them crave.
The non-profit was created with funding from the Paul Newman Foundation and philanthropists like Oprah Winfrey, whose picture sits in the reception room along with numerous awards and citations for the work Our House has done saving kids from incarceration. The state also contributes funding. The boys who luck into Our House have a significantly lower recidivism rate than the other boys in the system. According to Bienvenue, when the economy was good and it was easy to find a job, only 17 percent of the graduates ended up in trouble. Today, when jobs are hard to find, the recidivism rate is 24 percent. That compares with about a 79 percent rate for adolescents boys in Maryland.
The boys live in a dormitory on a farm, work to learn a trade during the day, and take classes at night to earn their GED. Since the ag program was introduced, the residents are more peaceful, Bienvenue said.
“They are more tuned into themselves. They have grown some confidence, picked up the work ethic.”
Our House resident Brian Starcher grew up on a farm so he finds working in the garden easier because of his past experiences. “I like it here,” he said, “because it reminds me of growing up .
“It keeps me calm, keeps me focused. It kind of makes me happy. I wish I was a child again.”
But Starcher, who is 19, has no plans to go back to farming. Once a star football player in high school, he has dreams of trying out for the NFL. If he doesn’t make it he wants to join the Army Special Forces or the Navy Seals.
In the summer Grossman is at the farm every day. During the school year he leaves the day-to-day work to Jones and Michelle Nowak, the other farm manager, who in Our House have found a place to combine their love of farming with their interest in social issues. But Grossman shows up three or four times a week, and with their help, built a 60-foot greenhouse this past winter. The new greenhouse will help extend the growing season and make year round egg production possible.
Last year about 10 high school students worked on the farm to fulfill their 100 hours of required community service. Grossman is hoping for 15 to 20 this year now that he will be farming more than three acres. In 2011 the farm provided produce and eggs to a 40-member CSA and to three weekly farmers markets—Olney, Silver Spring and Langley Park.
Grossman clearly isn’t getting rich farming (last year he cleared about $2,000.) But he’s growing food—and giving boys an opportunity to grow into men.
Marian Burros was on staff at The New York Times for 27 years and still writes for them. She has lived in the Washington area since 1959 and remembers when there were no farmers markets. At one time or other, she worked for The Washington Post and the late lamented Washington Star and Washington Daily News. She was also a consumer reporter for D.C.’s WRC-TV. The author of 13 cookbooks, she has been writing about small farms and the pleasures of local food since the 1980s.