How big is 540 acres? Technically, about 0.84 square miles. Almost 410 football fields in size. In other words: big. Very, very big. It was on these five hundred and forty sprawling, lush, beautiful acres in now-affluent Howard County, Maryland, that Nora Crist grew up and now farms.
Nora is an experienced and knowledgeable 28-year-old farmer who never planned to be a farmer. She’s a dynamo, a gifted grower of beautiful vegetables, a smart businesswoman, and a ton of fun to hang out with, if you can keep up with her. She talks and moves a mile a minute.
You could say that Nora’s story is almost the opposite of Shannon Varley’s. (My earlier posts about Shannon’s search to own her own farm begin here.) Nora was born into a long lineage of farmers and landowners, and she is now the 7th generation. Multiple branches of her family have been farming in Howard County since 1797, and their roots run deep in the history of the area.
It’s important to understand a bit of the more recent history of the farm to appreciate Nora’s story. Her story is stitched from the story of the farm itself, one that Nora seems to relish telling.
The growth of the farm
Nora’s ancestors on her mother’s side farmed in various locations around the county. Her great-grandfather purchased the farm where Nora currently lives, Clark’s Elioak Farm, in 1927, and he raised Angus cattle. When his son, Nora’s grandfather, returned from service in WWII, he purchased the farm from his father and started a dairy operation. He also had “what everyone had in those days,” says Nora: chickens, pigs, beef cows, and the milking cows. “And that was their monthly paycheck.”
His eldest son, Nora’s uncle, took over the dairy operation some time in the 1970s and expanded it. Nora’s grandfather pretty much retired from farming at that point. He turned his attention to serving in the Maryland State Senate, and during his tenure there he helped develop the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, a program that promotes agriculture and preserves farmland. That program is one of the most successful programs of its kind in the country. The state of Maryland has preserved in perpetuity more agricultural land than any other state.
A large memorial stone on the farm bears the words of Nora’s grandfather: Never sell the land. Clark’s Elioak Farm will remain farmland and never be developed.
The farm changes
As the Columbia area in Howard County became more suburban, it got harder to run the farm. Harder as in getting machinery down the road from field to field, or farm supply stores moving farther out. In the mid 1990s, when she was 5, Nora’s uncle moved the entire dairy operation to southern Georgia, which was a better place to expand. Now with the dairy operation gone, her grandfather found himself back in charge of the farm. The farm got by with what was left—some beef cattle, some hay and soybeans, and a roadside farm stand that had been selling sweet corn and tomatoes every summer since the 1960s. That farm stand plays heavily in the unfolding of Nora’s journey. The farm got by, but it was not a model of a vibrant, growing enterprise.
Nora’s brilliant mother
Nora’s mother, Martha, did not consider herself a farmer. She had married the local Southern States dealer and worked part-time in his store. They lived on a small farm right next door to her father’s farm (Nora’s grandfather’s) and raised Nora and her brother, who both grew up riding horses and running around like farm kids.
Nora’s job as a young girl was to help out at the family farm stand. She learned at a young age how to make change and how to interact with customers. She says she loved working there because it was a fun place to be and she got to hang out with her grandparents.
Things ticked along until 2000, when Nora’s dad unfortunately passed away. She was only 12.
Martha—“always at the forefront of things,” says Nora—did not want to run her husband’s business, so she hatched a plan that, like the farm stand, would turn out to play a big role in Nora’s development. It was a brilliant plan that created tremendous value out of an asset she already had—land.
With the blessing of her father (Nora’s grandfather), Martha decided in 2002 to turn about 20 acres of the farm into a petting farm, where kids could come for hay rides, interact with animals and have their birthday parties. The area around the Clark farm had become even more suburban, and the next generation of kids was growing up completely removed from farm life; no longer did kids spend their summers on their grandparents’ farms. Martha felt that a petting farm would be a way to get kids back on a farm.
Nora goes to work
Fourteen years old when it opened, Nora worked at the petting farm giving pony rides and helping with the animals. During the summers of her junior and senior years in high school, she also took over the management of the produce stand, and she developed great confidence in that role. She was able to make decisions about how the stand operated, and she got a percentage of the proceeds—great incentive for her to sell, sell, sell!
In between her duties at the stand and the petting farm, she would go horseback riding, her real passion.
I love Nora’s description of growing up and deciding what to do with one’s life: “You grow up, you move out of your parents’ house, and you go do something.” She didn’t grow up with the attitude of “get me out of here!” but she also never considered farming as a career option. She was only 5 years old when her uncle moved the dairy operation, and the little bit of farming done by her grandfather didn’t make a lot of money, so she didn’t have a vision of how to make a living off the farm. “What would I do on the farm?” Nora says.
So off she went to college to study equine business. She had thought she might some day end up back on the farm as a place to live, but not before traveling far and wide, working on other people’s horse farms.
So how, exactly, did she end up back home, farming the farm? Read Part 2 of Nora’s story here.