The Geography of a Suburban Farm

Jillian Levine lives in Maryland, where she works as an assistant market manager for Butler’s Orchard. For more information about Butler’s Orchard, visit www.ButlersOrchard.com or email Jillian at Jillian@ButlersOrchard.com.

Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

If you’ve ever traveled through the suburbs of upper Montgomery County, Maryland, you might be surprised to come across Butler’s Orchard, a family-owned and operated market and 300-acre Pick-Your-Own orchard. Nestled in between sprawling suburbs and new housing developments, Butler’s Orchard has remained a picturesque agricultural getaway for the thousands that visit every year to pick their favorite crop, find delicious local treats in the Farm Market, and enjoy various farm events and festivals every year.

Pick-it-yourself or fresh from the farm! Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

Pick-it-yourself or fresh from the farm!
Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

During Geography Awareness Week this year, as we think about the future and geography of food, it’s important to remember how important place is to how food is grown, purchased, consumed, and even wasted. (Read more about the growing “locavore” movement here.)

Butler’s unique location characterizes almost every aspect of the business, from the decision of where to plant certain crops, to the marketing of activities to the products we provide. Even the idea and success of Pick-Your-Own is rooted in Butler’s convenient location to large cities such as Washington D.C., Annapolis, and Baltimore. Our proximity to high-density population centers is not the traditional setting of most farms—but it has allowed us to be highly visible to potential customers, who in turn strengthen our business and help us grow.

In a time where fast food often trumps fresh food, there is a continuing disconnect between what we eat and what we should eat. Even though we live in one of the most well-educated counties in the county, at Butler’s we still see the need to increase the public’s awareness of where their food is coming from and how to make healthy choices.

At Butler’s, we still see the need to increase the public’s awareness of where their food is coming from and how to make healthy choices—like finding the perfect apple! Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

At Butler’s, we still see the need to increase the public’s awareness of where their food is coming from and how to make healthy choices—like finding the perfect apple!
Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

In response to this growing demand for food education in our area, the Butler family created several agricultural-themed learning activities, such as Strawberry Blossom Tours and Pumpkin Harvest Days. These farm events give families and schoolchildren an inside look at how food is grown and harvested on the Orchard. We have even developed these activities to complement the Montgomery County Public Schools curriculum, which has further elevated our visibility and increased local consumer knowledge of farming and agriculture.

In addition to the perks of city-adjacency, there are also several challenges to Butler’s prime placement on the East Coast. Being located in the mid-Atlantic region, we can have extremely harsh winters that can damage fragile crops such as strawberries and blackberries. We are also frequented by hot, humid summers with tropical systems that can bring flooding, droughts and disease to our sensitive crops.

Climate, moisture, and careful cultivation pay off! Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

Climate, moisture, and careful cultivation pay off!
Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

With the organic movement quickly sweeping the food world, many customers ask me on a daily basis, “Is this organic?” We explain that due to our unique climate challenges, sensitive crops and Pick-Your-Own logistics, going organic is not a realistic option for Butler’s. Instead, we have adopted an integrated pest management (IPM) system that combines both conventional and organic farming practices designed to increase yield and reduce the need for intense chemical treatments.

The Orchard’s specific geography, climate, and business plan create an intersection of unique challenges that our farmers must consider when planning new fields and crop rotations.

“We spend a lot of time deciding what crops will be best suited for which fields,” says Ben Butler, one of the assistant farm managers. “To do this, we must consider the previous crops in that field, the location and soil type and characteristics, the nutrient content of the field, and the logistics of harvesting that field with pick-your-own customers.”

Consumers pick their own blueberries in the green fields of suburban Maryland. Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

Consumers pick their own blueberries in the green fields of suburban Maryland.
Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

Our hilly terrain also dictates what we can and cannot grow. When Butler’s Orchard was first opened in 1950, it was a 37-acre peach orchard. Over the years, we’ve added more than 25 varieties of fruits, veggies, flowers, and trees—but we’ve stopped growing peaches. The reason for that is partially due to “frost pockets” that appear during cold weather.

“Cold air drains to the lower points on the farm, which can lead to a temperature difference of 6-8 degrees,” Butler explains.

This means that we have to be especially careful of where each crop is located on the farm, as the placement can make a dramatic different for the crops’ well-being.

The farmers at Butler's Orchard must consider the climate, topography, and soil before choosing where to plant crops like strawberries, above. Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

The farmers at Butler’s Orchard must consider the climate, topography, and soil before choosing where to plant crops like strawberries, above.
Photograph courtesy Jillian Levine

Despite the challenges, Butler’s Orchard has become one of the most successful Pick-Your-Own orchards in the region, thanks to its unorthodox location in the midst of suburbia.

To learn more about Geography Awareness Week, visit GeoWeek.org!

3 responses to “The Geography of a Suburban Farm

  1. Pingback: This Week in Geographic History, September 26 – October 2 | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. My family and I have been coming to Butler’s Orchard for 16 years since the birth of our first daughter. We just can’t resist their fresh fruits and vegetables, staff is uber wonderful, and we go crazy in the store (barn) for new arts and crafts to take home. We love this place! Now that we have our second daughter, we’ll continue our tradition. Thanks for a great blog!

  3. Reblogged this on Food Waste: from field to fork and commented:
    I cant say i have ever experienced the same joy in life, as what comes from eating food that you have grown with your own hands
    As the world’s population continues to move into urban areas, we may see a growing need and indeed a growing movement in peri-urban farms,
    What are your thoughts on people in cities growing their own food?

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