Southern Maryland farmers growing cut flowers

John Prouty has gone from cutting the whole tobacco stalk to snipping every flower stem. The country lawyer-farmer jumped out of labor-intensive tobacco several years ago into bouquets of cut-flowers.

He and his partner, Roxana Whitt, are glad they did.

They grow a variety of cut-flowers — two and half acres dedicated to annuals and one-half of an acre for perennials — which they sell at the local farmers market and at a local, independent grocery store. The flowers are grown under drip irrigation.

Using a grant from the Tri County Council, which administers the Maryland tobacco buyout that took effect in 2000, Prouty installed coolers in a stripping room that he used to prepare tobacco for market.

“I thought I had given up the most labor-intensive crop, but I hadn’t,” Prouty says. “It’s not as physical as tobacco, however.”

Describing the cut-flower operation as “absolute hand labor,” Prouty starts selling flowers for Mother’s Day and ends up in October with the first frost. “It’s a good five months,” he says. “With tobacco, you never got a month off.”

He tends to the weeding and growing of the flowers at the picturesque farm on the banks of the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. In addition to school-aged students hired during the summer, he has a full-time employee.

A self-described novice when it comes to flowers, Prouty nevertheless shows a growing appreciation of what looks good in an arrangement. They use peach limbs from a neighbor’s orchard as accent pieces in an arrangement, as well as spikes and accent colors — fillers that create the texture.

When they started growing flowers, they joined the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.

“It’s better for me to stay in the field and pull weeds,” he says, talking from the back of a hay wagon in an old red tobacco barn.

“She knows flowers,” he says, talking about his partner.

“We’re not committed to one flower,” Prouty says. “You have to have the right mix.”

Prouty says that he’s been surprised at the demand for cut-flowers in the area. “My partner gets worried that we’re not changing the varieties that we sell.”

Suburbanites, who commute the short 45 miles into Washington, D.C., from the picturesque Maryland countryside, are the main customers for the flowers. “They don’t have time to grow their own flowers,” Prouty points out.

While reaching into the future, the farm also has a tie to its past. Prouty’s father, John A. Prouty, uses his conversation skills as a flower salesman these days. In his 80s, the elder Prouty started the farm in the 1950s, when tobacco was the top crop.

Prouty also grows heirloom tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons and corn and sells some 6,000 to 7,000 bales of wheat, barley and rye straw a year. They also sell heirloom tomato plants to customers.

Although Calvert County, Md., is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, part of its rural landscape is largely left untouched by the hand of developers. That’s because the state was one of the first to engage in land preservation. Agricultural land is not taxed at the residential rate. That, in itself, has saved many farms. By law, there’s one house every 25 acres in this county within Agricultural Preservation Districts. “For every acre that is being developed, we’re saving more land. The transferable development rights have accelerated the rate of preservation.”

Prouty sat on the Preservation Board some 25 years ago, when he returned from law school at the University of Baltimore.

Raised on a tobacco farm, Prouty got his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He came back during summers to help his father farm. A couple years after he graduated, he decided he wanted to go for his law degree. Attending law school closer to home three to four days a week, he returned to the farm, working what he terms “long weekends. This was my only summer job growing up.

“I had this dream of being a country lawyer,” Prouty says. “That’s a breed that’s rapidly vanishing.”

While the farm continues to take up a large amount of his time, Prouty still does practice law in town. But the “mystique of the three-piece suit doesn’t affect me anymore.”

Instead, the barrister training has helped him in his day-to-day operation on the farm

“The variety of problems to be solved on the farm is unlimited,” Prouty says.

Prouty says he misses the days of tobacco in southern Maryland, but is glad he took the buyout.

“The buyout made it easy for us to invest in what we’re doing now,” he says. “The buyout was good for this area. We had no reliable labor and the market was up and down.”

Up until his generation, everyone in the area grew up handling tobacco. “Even 10 years ago, being in tobacco wasn’t a common experience,” Prouty says.

The timing of the buyout, he feels, was psychological for farmers, coming at the end of a tough year. “It didn’t take me long to decide. Ten years before, however, I wouldn’t have jumped right at it.”

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