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 morning 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.”
Glenn’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, chicken, 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 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.”
Glenn 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 in Washington, D.C., Glenn said.
He tends 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, including 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.”