5/24/2014 7:00 AM
By Jamie Clark Tiralla Maryland Correspondent
WALDORF, Md. — It was almost 30 years ago when Russell Shlagel and his wife, Eileen, went out on a limb and decided to stop growing tobacco and start growing vegetables.
“Tobacco was in the toilet. It got so bad one year, we just stopped. It wasn’t worth it anymore,” said Russell Shlagel, who’s fondly known as “Farmer Russ.”
How times have changed. Shlagel Farms is among the most well-known names in southern Maryland. Their produce can be found at markets throughout the area and in local grocery stores across the Mid-Atlantic region.
Their success partially hinges on the fact that they had the advantage of an early start. Russell and Eileen Shlagel didn’t wait until the tobacco buyout to stop growing tobacco like many of their colleagues. While learning by trial and error wasn’t easy, by the time most other farmers were even considering alternative crops, the Shlagels already had a strong market.
One of the first things the Shlagels planted was sweet corn. Russell Shlagel said he and Eileen planted a few acres and sat on the side of the road in their pickup truck, waiting for customers.
“When we first started, people would look at local produce as a lesser quality. Wholesale buyers wouldn’t return our calls,” Russell Shlagel said.
Shlagel Farms produces a variety of fruits and vegetables on hundreds of acres of farmland spread across three counties in southern Maryland.
“From asparagus to zucchini,” Russell Shlagel touted. They also grow a small amount of grain, raise Angus cattle, produce hay and grow flowers in a greenhouse to sell in hanging baskets.
Their home place, a 150-acre farm in Waldorf, is located just minutes from Route 301, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Russell Shlagel also credits their success to the strong demand for local produce and the farm’s proximity to an affluent customer base,
“The only reason there is local produce in the grocery stores is because people demand it,” he said. They’ve been selling produce to Giant Foods since 1993. He said the wholesale “buyers deal with hundreds of people a day. It’s a lot easier to buy everything from one big grower in California than 10 or 20 small growers in Maryland. We thank our customers for demanding local foods and ask them to thank their produce managers and buyers for stocking them. The day consumers stop asking for local produce will be the day things go back.”
While wholesale is still a majority of their business, Russell Shlagel estimates that 40 percent of the farm’s income is now generated through retail sales at farmers markets as well as their pick-your-own strawberry operation, on-farm market, CSA and seasonal field trips.
Strawberries have helped to put Shlagel Farms on the map. The Shlagels planted their first crop of strawberries in 1999 starting with 5,000 plants. For the 2014 season, the family planted 60,000 strawberry plants covering about five acres.
Shlagel Farms pick-your-own strawberry patch is open daily during the spring season. In a typical year, the season opens by April 25. But the extreme winter temperatures and a cool, wet spring have set them back this year.
“We didn’t open until the Wednesday before Mother’s Day and by Saturday we were picked out. That’s the first time ever,” Russell Shlagel said.
The field trips have been a rewarding complement to the farm’s operations. It wasn’t something the couple had considered until they were approached by a teacher from the local elementary school.
“Even though many of the children live less than a mile from here, they live in apartment buildings. They don’t get to have these kinds of experiences. Here they can see the life cycle and see plants growing,” said Michelle Colbert, who teaches 3-year-olds in the Even Start Program at JP Ryon Elementary School in Waldorf. “They say that was really hard work’ and develop a real love for nature. Then they go home and tell their parents.”
Eileen Shlagel said many families do return to the farm. And while the field trips aren’t a huge profit center for the farm, the couple believes the education it provides to students is important. Colbert helped the Shlagels write the curriculum for the field trips. They try to touch on all of the elements of farming from how plants grow and farm and pond safety, to basic conservation practices.
Russell Shlagel said he’s amazed by how much information the kids retain.
“They first come in the fall to see the end of our growing season with the pumpkins. When they come back in the spring, they’ll see the beginning of the growing season. They remember the fancy word we use, irrigation, and how it’s used to water the plants,” he said.
Russell Shlagel’s grandfather, Otto, couldn’t have imagined how Charles County would develop or what the farm would evolve into when he purchased it more than a century ago in 1912.
A first-generation immigrant from Germany, Otto came to the U.S. for the promise of “good farmland” as advertised by the German-American Colonization Co. He died just a few short years after he purchased the farm and his wife died only weeks later, leaving five young children on the farm.
Russell Shlagel’s father, George, was 12 at the time and was determined to keep the farm and turn it into a profitable career. Eileen Shlagel said it was important to her father-in-law that it be a family farm, and he enjoyed being there until his final days. “He really loved seeing us do the vegetables and trying new things. He didn’t always think it would be successful, but he was always there helping us,” she said.
Family is still an important aspect of Shlagel Farms.
“We support four families in Maryland and seven in Mexico,” said Russell Shlagel, father of five. Two of Russ and Eileen Shlagel’s sons, Karl and Luke, are employed on the farm full time. A third son, Jake, works part time while also studying prelaw.
As for the families in Mexico, Russell Shlagel said he has hired the same group of men on H-2A visas for eight consecutive years. His workers are all related to one another by blood or marriage.
Russell and Eileen Shlagel are proud that their sons want to work on the farm. They said they couldn’t keep their youngest son, Luke, away from the farm.
“I got my associate degree,” Luke Shlagel said, “but there was never any other interest for me.” Russell Shlagel said his sons have been the ones who mostly manage the farmers market and have brought in new ideas such as the CSA.
Stewardship of the land has always been the foundation of the Shlagel family. In fact, the farm’s motto is “if we don’t take care of the land, it won’t take care of us.” Russell and Eileen Shlagel have seen many changes over the course of their ownership of the farm. Scrutiny over nutrient management, conservation practices and food safety not among the least.
This year, Shlagel Farms earned GAP (good agricultural practice) certification through the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The family expects GAP certification through the USDA to be completed within a few months.
“We take the conservation of soil, water and natural resources very seriously,” Russell Shlagel said. “We take every step we can to improve water quality and reduce soil erosion. If my farm washes down into the water, it does me no good. I’m a farmer, not a waterman.”
A few of the farm’s conservation practices include a tailwater recovery system, which captures runoff in a pond and recycles the water for irrigation. Russell Shlagel said that in 20 years the pond can be dredged and the topsoil reclaimed for the fields. The Shlagels also use no-till practices and cover crops whenever possible, along with integrated pest management strategies.
“Most farmers in Maryland are doing a phenomenal job with nutrient management and preventing runoff. We just do a crummy job letting people know about them,” Russell Shlagel said.
In the fall he conducts a farm tour where he talks about the farm’s history as well as agricultural and conservation practices and food safety.
“You never know who’s going to be on the tour. Consumers are getting more and more sophisticated. We’re open and honest. That’s one of the biggest reasons why people keep coming back,” he said.
Russell Shlagel said it’s hard to imagine what the farm will look like in another 30 years, but he hopes things continue to be successful and it remains a family farm. He often drives by the cemetery where his father is buried as he travels between properties. He said that he wonders if his father is laughing at him or is proud.
“I want to make it fun, but I don’t want to get away from it being a strawberry farm. We do agri-entertainment, I guess you could say, but I want to hold on to the fact that we are a working family farm,” Russell Shlagel said.
Opening the farm to the public has helped the Shlagels form deep bonds with their customers in a way that would have never been possible when they were growing tobacco.
“You think you’re just raising strawberries, but it’s something special to the people who come here,” he said. “We’ve had people come here at the lowest points in their lives just to be in a simple field and pick strawberries. It’s a very unique connection we have with our customers.”<\c> LF20140524S_tiralla-shlagel-01,03-04
Photo by Jamie Clark Tiralla
Strawberry fields grow on black plastic mulch with irrigation at Shlagel Farms in Waldorf, Md.
Photos provided by the Shlagel family.
The Shlagel family gets together at the end of the 2013 harvest season. From left to right: Jake, Casey,
Eileen, Russell, Susan, Luke and Karl Shlagel.
Easton Meadows enjoys strawberries at Shlagel Farms in Waldorf, Md.