What is now known as Swann Farms in Owings began so long ago that the Swann family patriarch, Allen “Sambo” Swann, can only tell the story from 1850 on.
Most people know the patriarch as Sambo and his son as Joe-Sam. Sambo’s nephew, Jody, and Joe-Sam run the farm now.
“We raised our children here and we are watching our grandchildren grow up here,” Sambo said. The rich and long history of the farm is living on.
Sambo has some deeds and receipts for the farm from 1850 when the principal family member for the farm was William Cornelius Fowler, who owned much more land than just the current 300-acre farm. When he died, his land was split among his seven children. His youngest child, Hannah Fowler, got the last pick of the estate and wound up with the piece on the Patuxent River. Back then, that land wasn’t desirable for its lack of timber and poor land.
But what was the least desirable land for the seven Fowler children was the land that became the livelihood of generations of Swanns, and more generations in the future. There are now seven houses on the farm, all of which house family members.
Swann Farms has its own twist to almost everything. Rather than simply planting traditional row corn, some is planted with photodegradable plastic, which acts as a miniature greenhouse, allows for an earlier planting and speeds up the whole process. The actual process to plant with the plastic takes longer to complete than other planting methods, but it gets the crop in three weeks earlier. Wheat is used as a cover crop for the corn, which is then used as mulch for the corn crops. Sweet corn is the main crop, with 150 acres planted each year.
The main attraction to the farm, though, is the you-pick strawberries operation, which will run through May this year.
“It’s by far been the fastest-growing aspect,” Joe-Sam said.
The you-pick strawberries on 5 acres of the farm have been offered for five years and each year it grows about 20 to 30 percent, Joe-Sam said. It started when, several years ago, Joe-Sam had been picking strawberries for hours on end for several weeks when he asked himself, “Why are we picking when others could?”
This year, crops of raspberries and blackberries will join the you-pick operation, with the season running from mid-June through early August, thus extending the you-pick attraction of the farm throughout the summer. Another twist to the normal at Swann Farms is that the blackberries are planted on trellises that can tilt to be horizontal and all the fruit is on one side for easier picking.
Four acres are planted with blueberries. This year will be the second year Swann Farms has grown them, but a crop won’t be taken from them, as a few years need to pass for the plants to establish. Eventually, blueberries will be an option for visitors to pick from mid-June through early August. Extending the you-pick operation also means the farm can highlight its other summer crops to sell to patrons while they are already on the premises.
Other crops include peaches, asparagus, watermelon and tomatoes, all of which are sold at farm stands and farmers markets. The produce is also sold to local grocery stores, including Nick’s of Calvert and Bowen’s Grocery. Joe-Sam’s grandfather started the relationship with Bowen’s when he started selling watermelons to the store in the 1950s. Barley is sold to Purdue and local breweries.
Some of the food goes to the Chesapeake Cares food pantry in Huntingtown, and the Maryland Food Bank gleans leftover corn. Last time a gleaning was done, 20,000 pounds of corn were donated to the food bank.
And then there’s the bees, which came about from a relationship with a beekeeper in Lothian. The beekeeper gets the space for his hives, and the farm gets the pollination. The Swanns share the expense of maintaining the hives with the keeper, and since Joe-Sam is around the farm every day and the beekeeper is not, he catches the swarms so the keeper doesn’t lose any hives.
But in his youth, Joe-Sam didn’t see chasing bee swarms and picking strawberries in his future. “Growing up, I did not want to be a farmer,” he said.
He went to Towson University and stayed in the area, working in the auto insurance claim industry. But after he and his wife, started having kids and were living in a townhouse, his perspective changed. His father gave him some land to build a house and now Joe-Sam and his family live on the farm. Often, his 5-year-old son will spend the whole day with him on the farm. Joe is the sixth generation on the farm. His children are the seventh.
Sambo said he didn’t plan on farming, either. After growing up on the farm with no one to play with, little money and doing lots of work, he found work as a sheet metal worker. Sambo said leaving the farm is a necessary experience, as so many people farm because they feel they have to, but he farmed because he wanted to.
Growing up on the farm meant filling the woodbox many times, as the old house was heated by firewood, as well as living on salt pork from the pigs on the farm and looking forward to spring, where fresh fish could be caught from the river after a long winter of salt pork.
“That was pretty awesome, the first night to have fresh fish,” Sambo said.
Spring was also exciting because it’s when there were baby chicks. “Then when they were big enough to have fried chicken, we were in heaven,” he said.
Tobacco was king at the time, of course, but the Swann family didn’t have too rough of a transition out of tobacco. By the time the government tobacco buyout came about, the farm was actually producing more vegetables than tobacco.
Many people want to sell their farmland and run. Sambo said in order to keep farming, the family has to stick together. The goal was to keep the land to leave his three children with the opportunity to farm.
“We provide the opportunity. What they do with it is up to them,” Sambo said.
This article is the first in the Faces of Farming series running monthly through the spring and summer. For more photos of Swann Farms, go to www.somdnews.com.