On this crystalline morning. I’m thinking hard of travelling with you on a tour of the Agricultural Reserve – offering just a sampling of it’s 93,000 acres as we only have 3 hours together.
We meet up at the historic Seneca Store, not far from Poolesville and take a little time to see the remarkable renovation of the place. The vegetable starters are just in and folks have cheerfully descended to supply their home gardens. This general store, located near both the Seneca Greenway trail and C & O Canal, has served the rural community and visitors for decades – a little gem you might call it.
Right off the bat I am thrilled to hear that you spent time in advance researching the Reserve, now celebrating its 41st year, so a lesson of how it came to be and the zoning mechanisms that regulate it is not needed. How, you keenly inquire, is it meeting its purpose as laid out by planners decades ago and what does the future hold. I love these outings. They are never the same and are always enriching as I learn what matters to others who not steeped, as I am, in this place. We talk as we drive about the imperative for bolstered local food production and better stewardship for forests, habitat, and water resources, agreeing that the Reserve will help to meet these goals in the years to come. We ruminate over the recent bruhaha that resulted when a County Council proposed change in zoning sought to make commercial solar facilities in the Reserve a primary land use. Farmers, preservationists and climate change activists mobilized together to ensure that the provision was amended to protect prime and productive farm soils and ensure transparency and public participation in the siting process. Climate change mitigation and adaption plans are under way in Montgomery County and most agree that we must ensure that our actions bolster and not undermine the tools, including natural resources and producing lands, that have been carefully established and protected here.
As we wait our turn at the sweet one lane bridge on rustic Montevideo Road, the creek ambling below eases us. This byway is one of 99 roads designated by Montgomery County as rustic roadways, through a program aimed at protecting the historic character of these byways. We are both struck by a long vista dotted in scarlet set in deep green. Crimson Clover is being planted as a “cover crop” to help transition farm acreage to more soil healthy practices, known as regenerative agriculture. A growing number of Reserve’s over 500 farms are employing these practices to better boost crop yield and retain moisture in the soil among other benefits. I share that we have been working with the County Executive to provide for additional resources and training for new and transitioning regenerative farmers.
After together helping, very gingerly, a large cantankerous snapping turtle across Hunting Quarter Road, we make our way past fields of winter wheat, newly planted corn, grazing horses and alpacas to St. Paul Community Church, the heart of the Sugarland Forest community. Sugarland is one of more than 10 of the Reserve’s historic African American communities, once thriving community centers which often included a church, school, benefit hall, store and post office serving the surrounding homes. Many African American settlements were scattered throughout the county, usually located near mills, farms, or other sources of employment. This day we meet with a direct descent of one of the founders of Sugarland, Gwen Reese, who shares what life was like for her ancestors after emancipation in the thriving and collaborative community. Her important research as part of the Sugarland Ethnohistory Project is ongoing and has helped paint a picture of community members who shared equally in tasks, including caring for their children and tending the land. The church stands as a testament of their deep faith and devotion today.
Just down the road, at the orchard, we’ve managed to snag the farm owner from his tractor. He tends nearly 8000 fruit trees of many varieties. It’s been a ridiculously tough year already with damaging nights of frost and deep freeze. He’s lost a large number of his fruit crop and is still assessing the damage. This, coupled with the significant crop losses last year, is a devasting blow. And yet here he – greeting us cheerfully and sharing with us his growing techniques and delighting us with the serendipity of how he developed his own cultivar of peach, aptly named Kingsbury’s pride. You simply cannot meet a farmer that revels in his craft this way and leaves unmoved.
Traveling north through Comus, we are graced with the achingly beautiful view of Sugarloaf Mountain and pasture scattered with wooly sheep decked in coats… Before you ask, I offer that the flock wears these to keep their fleece clean, bolstering the price that can fetched at market for their wool. Natural fiber will be more sought after you offer as we drift away from plastic fibers that foul our water. I can see from the eager expression on your face that you’d like to take a little side trip (the mountain beckons) and so we’re off past the Sugarloaf Vineyard (more purchases later!) and across the county line into Frederick for a loop up and around the mountain. We are thick in talk about how important it is to protect our working lands and natural resources regionally by advancing farmland and open space preservation across county lines with a goal to create large swaths of land that will feed and restore our bustling region. The long views into the Reserve from the mountain tell the story of a place with purpose inspiring us to make sure it will endure.
Caroline Taylor is Executive Director, Montgomery Countryside Alliance (MCA). Caroline has worked on environmental and agricultural issues for much of her professional career. Her passion has always been protection of the Ag Reserve’s natural resources and working lands. She is participating on behalf of MCA on County committees to advance a strategic plan for food composting, agritourism, and a long range zero waste policy and implementation plan.