When Wheelock Winspear decided to return to farming 15 years ago, it had been over three decades since he had last grown and sold fruits and vegetables. Nevertheless, he had enthusiasm, experience, and tradition on his side. Both of his mother’s parents and his father’s father had been full-time farmers. Wheelock himself grew up helping his father run a small beef operation on their 50-acre farm in southern Ohio. After graduating college, and following his father’s passing, Wheelock returned to his family’s farm and started growing produce that he sold at farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants around Cincinnati. Wheelock says his success was limited, however, because of a lack of a mentor. Eventually, he moved to other work, spending 35 years in television as a satellite truck technician and news photographer in Baltimore (primarily at WMAR-Channel 2).
As exciting as he found his profession, Wheelock was ready for a change. “I don’t like standing in snow drifts anymore if I can help it,” Wheelock says after countless hours covering the weather in teeth-chattering conditions). Farming seemed to be the right move for him, since it’s “the only place where I’ve always felt comfortable being my own boss,” and, like other farmers, he likes being able to “grow something we can be proud of.” After moving to Baltimore County, Wheelock brought some of his farming equipment back from Ohio and picked up the rest at auctions or from Craigslist. He started gardening and growing again until he had enough to sell and soon rediscovered his love for farmers markets. Wheelock now sells at three markets a week during the heights of the growing season – University of Maryland Medical Center on Tuesdays, Pratt Street on Thursdays, and Hampstead on Saturdays – and he takes pride in the “loyalty of customers” and the fact that “I can share a product at a very fair price.” Indeed, for Wheelock, “the relationships with people out there is half the fun” of farming. Wheelock plants for 14-16 weeks a year and harvests for the same amount of time. Since the market season overlaps both of these periods, he is incredibly busy for about 12 weeks (at the start of market season his wife always asks: “When does the insanity start?”). Although the work can be intense, Wheelock says, “I have fun with it.”
Because Wheelock needed a way to compete with larger farming operations, he focuses on selling more niche products, like heirloom tomatoes, leopard watermelons, and dragon tongue beans. “Every year I’m tweaking things,” he explains, “maybe I’ll try expanding mixed greens.” He is also happy to be able to provide produce that people from outside the U.S. might have grown up with, whether it’s eggplant for Indian customers or wax beans for Europeans. It’s not only customers who have responded so positively to Wheelock’s harvests – at this year’s Maryland State Fair, Wheelock won six 1st place ribbons, one 2nd place, and two 4th places for his produce (this included three 1st place prizes and one 2nd for the four new heirloom tomato categories). It was exciting not only for Wheelock’s personal validation (“Ohio farmers take their produce seriously”), but also because “it gives me bragging rights against some of the bigger guys.” He considers the larger farms to be friendly competitors, though – all of them share farming knowledge, and Wheelock believes that small farms can even be quite helpful to large ones since “small growers bring fresh ideas.”