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Meet Your Local Farmer

A Conversation with Wade Butler, Farm Manager of Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Maryland

Butler’s Orchard remains a pleasant reminder of the days when open countryside and family farms were in greater abundance than shopping centers and housing developments across Montgomery County, Maryland. When George and Shirley Butler purchased 37 acres of farmland in Germantown, Maryland in 1950 they had more cows for neighbors than people. The Butler’s farm grew to 300 acres over the years, but much of the land around them has been converted to nonagricultural uses. Three of the Butler’s four children, Wade, Susan and Todd, continue to run the farm full-time with Shirley. Wade is the farm manager, Todd runs the market, and Susan runs the office and works in the market. The Butler’s instilled a love of farming in their children. “As a kid I loved working on the farm. We all operate very well together and there is room for all of us to spread out,” says Wade Bulter.

Butler's Orchard started as a wholesale farm selling peaches in the 1950's

Even though Butler’s Orchard remains a family-run farm, they have been forced to adapt to changing economic conditions and cultural trends. Butler’s Orchard began as a wholesale operation selling only peaches. “One day in the 1960’s my dad went to sell peaches to a local grocery, but they didn’t need any peaches. He quickly realized that wholesale wasn’t the way to go and started a pick-your-own before most other farms,” reflects Wade. The family also opened their own market on the farm that stays open 8 months out of the year. At the market you can find anything from flowers, fruits, and vegetables to jams and other unique gifts. The market has also led the Butlers to work more closely with other local farms, buying and selling excess produce, because as Wade says, “No one can grow it all.

What also makes Butler’s Orchard unique is its proximity to urban areas and the family’s willingness to embrace the public. According to Wade, in the 1950’s, dairy farms occupied most of the area, and farmers at that time were reluctant to open their doors to the public. Although Wade says it took 30 years for the agricultural community to accept the Orchard’s open operating style, the Butlers’ pick-your-own offerings have played a key role in selling produce and bringing people to the market. The most popular pick-your-own items are pumpkins, followed by blueberries and strawberries, but the Butlers try to have at least one pick-your-own item for every season. “The Pumpkin Festival is our most popular event and has really taken off in the last 20 years,” comments Wade. The festival is an annual event celebrated with baked goods, pony rides, a straw maze and many other attractions.

Pick-your-own blueberries is a popular season at Butler's Orchard

While Butler’s Orchard continues to thrive in the midst of Suburbia, Wade still has concerns about the future. “I’m concerned about being able to stay profitable. We need to continue to have farming infrastructure in place including having other farms nearby and having places nearby for tractor and equipment repair. We have to travel further and further distances which is very costly,” comments Wade. He is also concerned about zoning changes in Montgomery County. “Zoning changes meant to save and preserve farmland don’t always help the farmers,” reflects Wade. The drought has also been a major concern for farmers this season, but Butler’s Orchard has been economizing water use and uses drip irrigation to minimize the drought’s impact on the farm.

Butler's Orchard with a suburban development close in the background

The Butler’s are also noticing cultural changes that affect the farm. “People used to pick produce in large quantities, but now both spouses work and canning and freezing are lost arts. Produce sold in grocery stores is brought in from long distance and is very attractive to the eye even if it doesn’t taste as good,” reports Wade. The Butler’s are now finding that more and more people want to come out and spend the day at the farm, but are not buying that much. Because of this growing trend farmers are starting to consider ways to charge admission to come on the farms.

Despite these concerns, Wade and the other Butlers remain hopeful for the future. Two of Wade’s three children are earning horticultural degrees from the University of Maryland and all three enjoy helping out on the farm. “I would like my children to have the opportunity to farm and enjoy the same quality of life as I did,” says Wade. “I would like this to remain a place for people to come and spend a day in the country.”

Butler’s Orchard is located at 22200 Davis Mill Road in Germantown, Maryland. The farm is open 8 months of the year. For more information please visit the Butler’s Orchard website.