Wednesday, July 25, 2007

So farm, so good

Seeds of art and diversity grow at Red Wiggler Farm — and the county Farm Tour puts them on display.

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Loran Shallenberger oversees volunteers Jesse Clark, 10; sisters Jordan, and Morgan Marshall,12 and 11; Stephanie Galvin, 10, and Sam Kerr, 13, at Red Wiggler Farm.
How does your garden grow?

Good question.

At Red Wiggler Farm, it grows in the encroaching shadow of development, with Clarksburg, Damascus and Germantown creeping in, all half-built houses and bulldozers.

That’s how it seems when you turn off Ridge Road at a little MNCPPC sign that says ‘‘Ovid Hazen Wells.”

But Woody Woodroof sees it differently.

‘‘We rent 12 acres from MNCPPC,” says Woodroof, the 42-year-old director of Red Wiggler Farm. ‘‘We’re not ‘certified organic,’ but we grow chemical free.”

And they harvest what they grow with the help of a team of developmentally disabled adults whose weeding and hoeing at Red Wiggler adds a sense of independence and purpose to their lives.

‘‘We actually create a job — so we contract with The Arc of Montgomery County (support and services for adults and children with mental disabilities), or hire people who are referred to us through agencies,” Woodroof explains. ‘‘We bring in volunteers to help, too; that creates a supportive environment. It sends out ripples into the families, into the community.”

He looks around the farm he founded in 1996 on land the Wells family donated to the county two decades ago. Woodroof is an artist (originally from Richmond, he holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from Dennison College in Ohio) and a philanthropist, dedicated to organic farming methods and solar energy. Still, he sees something positive even in the new development on every horizon: people.

Woodroof is a people person. And this weekend, people will be coming to Red Wiggler Farm.

And to Blue Ribbon Alpaca Breeding Co. in Laytonsville, Heyser Farms in Silver Spring, Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson and Stargazing Farm in Boyds. This weekend is the 18th annual Montgomery County Farm Tour, and while Woodroof would like it very much if you came to Red Wiggler, he’d like you and your family to visit all the farms throwing open their doors this weekend.

‘‘We believe it’s important for every farm that still exists,” he says. ‘‘We’re not in competition!

‘‘The stronger Butler’s Orchard is, the stronger Phillips Farm is, the stronger we are!”

Special events

Red Wiggler — named for the earthworms that Woodroof calls ‘‘remarkable companions in the garden” — is participating in the Farm Tour in a way unique to its purpose as a nonprofit community farm. Other farms will offer hayrides, pony rides, concerts, tours and fresh produce for sale, but Red Wiggler, with the help of an arts organization called Concerts in the Country, will hold ‘‘Artfarm.”

‘‘Our mission is to celebrate the use of space and landscape in the arts,” says Ric Wagner. ‘‘We like to do events in unusual places.”

Wagner founded Concerts in the Country with co-director Marianne Ross in 1978 to create, produce and perform in Artfarms in the D.C. area. Artfarms — multidisciplinary arts events that take place on farms — bring together diverse elements: farmers and suburbanites, artists and musicians. And they use the dwindling rural landscape as their canvas, stage and meeting ground.

‘‘We in Montgomery County so desperately need these rural spaces to exist,” says Wagner. ‘‘We need to increase our awareness, to buy local produce, to support the needs of farmers and to get educated about the environment.”

Wagner says that the space itself, ‘‘the way that it influences us,” is an exciting element of the art he and his wife Marcia create. The ‘‘rainbow water drum,” he explains, incorporates recycled plastic bottles into a hands-on open-air sculpture⁄instrument. The ‘‘ball run” creates a tableau as children chase a ball around the farm.

‘‘There will be a didjiridoo player — the sound really resonates — and a band,” says Wagner. And because the space is owned by MNCPPC, Brookside Gardens will send representatives to lead children in nature-related learning and fun.

‘‘We’ll have insect bingo in the garden,” says Lynn Richard, children’s program horticulturist at Brookside. ‘‘Children get bingo cards, then go looking for the actual insect ... and to support their art theme, we let the children paint their own note cards.”

Projects

Kids are always on the farm at Red Wiggler, though. In the run-up to Artfarm, teen volunteers are in the fields weeding, then working with Loran Shallenberger, 26, on the ecological and environmentally responsible building he is creating from straw bales and specially mixed natural plaster (aka mud.)

‘‘Next year at about this time, we’re looking to break ground for the building,” says Shallenberger, a carpenter who holds a bachelor of arts degree in culture, ecology and sustainable communications with a concentration in eco-dwellings from the New College of California.

Soon, another building should be ready, too: the solar-powered house University of Maryland students donated after the 2005 Solar Decathlon on the National Mall. Woodroof will be living in it once construction is complete.

Field art

The farm has other fascinating buildings: the turreted green-and-white Victorian that Woodroof hopes will be restored one day, the striking red barn with its tile silo and the shed where tobacco sheaves probably once dried.

When the Farm Tour opens, these buildings will house art. The didjiridoo player might perform on the porch, Barbara Hittle of Damascus, a job coach with the ARC of Montgomery County, will hang her handmade quilts on the walls of the barn, and Woodroof has made blueprints of garlic to be installed in the shed.

Best of all this weekend, Red Wiggler produce will be available for purchase: as a nonprofit, the farm usually sends its herbs, flowers and super-sweet cherry tomatoes to co-ops and to the group homes where many of its workers live.

‘‘It’s the only time our produce is available on the farmstand,” says Beth McCormick proudly. The Derwood native is has been the farm’s youth volunteer coordinator for seven years. She coordinates school groups and community groups — like Frederick Summer Serve, the volunteer camp that supplies young farmhands to get things spruced up for the Farm Tour.

‘‘We’ll have a core group of volunteers,” she says. ‘‘We’ll have a tent set up with board members, ready to discuss our programs. We’ll have musicians and storytellers, painting with vegetables. It’s a lot of fun.”

Sometimes things grow at Red Wiggler that no one expects to see. Woodroof walks through the neat rows of bee balm and echinacea, basil and marigold.

‘‘We’re particularly excited about butterflies,” says Woodroof. ‘‘A Baltimore checker spot was spotted here a year ago.”

That would be the state insect of Maryland — not on the endangered species list, but rare nonetheless. Woodroof, still a photographer, has the pictures to prove it. He offers some bright orange cherry tomatoes, a snap of summer sweetness in every bite.

‘‘The work that’s done in the garden is art,” says Woodroof, apparently ignoring the faint sound of bulldozers in the background. ‘‘The gardens and the farm — that’s our form of creative expression.”

Montgomery County’s 18th Annual Farm Tour & Harvest Sale takes place Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For a listing of participating farms, visit a library or www.montgomerycountymd.gov⁄mcgtmpl.asp?url=⁄content⁄ded⁄AgServices⁄agfarmtour.asp.