MD farmers are growing a family and a successful CSA

By Pete Pichaske

Dave and Lydia Liker are raising a family and becoming successful CSA farmers in Maryland all at the same time.

If the phrase "family farm" brings to mind American Gothic, the iconic Grant Wood painting of a dour couple with a pitchfork, you probably haven't met the Likers.

A sunny young couple with three equally cheerful young children, the Likers own and operate Gorman Farm, a 56-acre organic farm in North Laurel. It's a family farm in the best sense of the word.

FarmFamilyshotWVDave, 39, runs the operation, while Lydia, 34, keeps the books and, when she's not caring for the couple's children, works the fields alongside her husband. Dave's older brother Marc also works at the farm and the kids, though a tad small to do much plowing or planting, are farm fixtures.

"Shep's my main mechanic," jokes Dave, referring to his youngest child, David "Shep" Shepard, during a recent interview in one of his barns. As if on cue, the 2-year-old toddles over to his father and asks, "Ride tractor?"

Dave picks him up and smiles. "He loves to ride on the tractor."

And he's not the only one. "They all love to hang out with their dad and help out, especially when a tractor is involved," says Lydia of Shep and his older sisters, Gioia, 5, and Madeleine Matou, 3. "Shep re-sorts his tools, and the girls love to sample food with him."

Dave says there's a lot of attraction to raising kids on a farm and teaching them the value of being outside.

"Our kids love raw kale. Our kids love tomatoes. Our kids eat broccoli," he says.

SUBHEAD: Building a CSA

Gorman Farm is a busy place. Besides growing and harvesting about 50 different crops, the Likers have a pick-your-own component, sell pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees in December and previously ran a farm stand on the property.

But the farm's top priority is its community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. Under these increasingly popular programs, members buy shares that entitle them to regular portions of the farm's harvest. The arrangement guarantees the farmers a reliable market for whatever they grow and the customers a steady stream of fresh produce all summer.

"We've found that CSA is what works for us," Dave says. To focus on its CSA, the farm stopped participating in a weekly Annapolis farmers market a couple of years ago, and this year will not operate its farm stand which, while popular, was expensive to run.

"We're sad to close our doors to that, because we had a lot of happy people, a lot of regulars," Dave says. "But we have to focus on the sustainability of the business and making sure we'll be around."

Not purebred farmers

FarmFamilyTractorWNeither Dave nor Lydia grew up farming. Dave was raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his father worked in the life insurance business and his mother ran a small vintage business. He dropped out of college to play drums in a local rock band and never returned for his degree. "I'm definitely the dirtiest one of my breed," he says.

Lydia grew up on farmland in Monkton, but her father ran a hose clamp manufacturing business, and her mother worked for the Walters Art Museum. An accomplished horsewoman, Lydia also has taught preschool.

The couple met in Colorado where Dave had a caretaker's job near Telluride. He had taken up gardening in California to supplement his sometimes-spotty income as a drummer, and discovered he both loved and was good at it.

In Colorado, Dave grew produce and sold it at local markets. After he and Lydia married, they began to think — fantasize, more accurately — about becoming fulltime farmers. Their hazy dream became reality in the fall of 2008, when they bought Gorman Farm.

Dave calls it a "nervous decision." The farm had scant infrastructure, no access road, no power and no water supply — though much of it was low-lying and swampy. But they went to work and, in 2009, harvested their first crop.

"It was a huge learning curve, but we pulled it off," Dave recalls. "Our first season, we had 28 happy CSA customers."

That number has grown steadily ever since, and last year, hit 450. This year, Dave is shooting for 500 CSA customers. During peak season he employs as many as 10 full-time workers.

"We're about 10 years ahead of where I ever thought I would be," Dave says. He freely acknowledges that location has played a huge role in that success, noting that the farm is in the middle of a large market and an affluent county where farmland is fast disappearing. "All of this worked to our advantage," he says. "I just didn't know this when we were starting."

Putting down roots

While their future is somewhat uncertain — their current farm is planted to capacity and Dave is looking for more land to farm — they have every intention of sticking around. And family is one big reason.FarmFamilyStrawberryW

"We're setting roots pretty heavily as a family here," Dave says. "The kids are in school, they have friends. My wife's family is here. ... We're more and more driven to stay in this area."

The Likers, who live within walking distance of their farm, clearly enjoy the lifestyle: the hard work, the self-sufficiency, the fresh produce that feeds them throughout the year, and the healthful, outdoors aspect. They love seeing their children grow up with all that.

"There are a lot of attributes to raising kids on the farm. They gain so many invaluable lessons," Lydia says. "Ours are still so young, but they 'go to work' as Dave does.

... They sort rocks, play imaginary games, climb on straw bales. They fall when we are not looking but, as farm kids do, they get back up on their own."

Their mother says she knows they've had a good day "when their clothes are the color of the dirt."

Though the farm is something of a giant playground, balancing the work and child care can be a challenge for the parents. During the busy planting and harvesting seasons, Dave and Lydia set up a trailer near the fields, so the kids can sleep there while the parents work the fields.

"We put the monitor on and do the work," Lydia says. And the whole family has been known to crash in the trailer at night.

Despite the long hours — Lydia jokes that a "date night" during growing season can mean working in a field alongside her husband while the children sleep in the nearby trailer — the couple believes farm life helps build strong family ties.

"We enjoy at least two if not three meals together as a family," Lydia says. "Our family foundation is stronger because of it."

And at supper they always thank "the farmer, the field, the animals working and wild, the sun and rain and snow, and that brings our whole profession full circle and integrates purpose and appreciation," she says.