Working the Land for a 21st Century Market
At Spider Hall, education and old-fashioned fun help keep the family farm in business
Squeals rise from deep inside the eight-acre corn maze. Families hitch a ride atop bales of hay. Kids scour the pumpkin patch in search of the perfect gourd. Shoppers mull over crisp apples and Maryland meat, cheese and ice cream in the farm market.
Susan and Catherine Cox — mother and daughter proprietors of Calvert County’s Spider Hall Farm — lure people to their fields with fun — hoping they leave with good memories and newfound respect for farming.
That’s a subject both Cox women know. Six generations of Coxes have plowed, grown and harvested crops on Calvert County farms.
“I want to teach people what it is to be a farmer and to appreciate the work of a farmer,” Catherine says. “Agricultural education is my passion.”
Six years after the Cox family purchased the 362-acre Spider Hall Farm, Catherine and her mother are beginning their second year of running it as an open-air classroom.
A Calvert County teacher for 25 years, Susan developed a school field trip program around the county’s curriculum.
“In our first year, we had school field trips here every day in October,” Catherine reports. The curriculum for kids and adults is farming’s relation to their world.
“We teach them about the environment. They learn they are stewards of the earth. We teach them to take only what you need and leave the earth better than when you found it,” Susan says.
The hayrides deliver unwitting students to the “lower 40,” where they visit a working farm. Fields of soybeans and feed corn are bordered by woodland, each a separate ecosystem.
As winter put the chill on their outside classroom, Catherine worried about paying the bills. In an a-ha moment, she decided to extend the farm’s classroom to local food.
The Spider Hall farm stand opened in spring.
Customers learn what it means to buy and eat seasonal foods,” Susan says. “The 20-by-30-foot box is also a lesson in economics. Farmers want to sell to us, customers want to buy from us.”
On sale are a range of Maryland products, including ice cream, cheese, milk, Southern Maryland meats, local jams and honey. Walls Bakery supplies bread, éclairs and pies. The Spider Hall Farm garden provides seasonal produce. Squash and pumpkins rule this season.
Come December, there will be Maryland Christmas trees.
“Only fresh-cut trees from Garrett County,” says Susan. “Not trees harvested months early from outside the state.”
An Idea’s Germination
Spider Hall Farm present and future grew from lives planted in the land.
“I’ve found most people don’t know the truth about farmers,” says Catherine, who has lived her life on the family farm and “wouldn’t change it for the world.
“Whether I was helping feed the cows or planting tobacco, I never saw things as chores,” she says.
Susan learned farming by heart.
Born and raised in Montgomery County, she came to Calvert to teach. She also found a husband, Calvert County farmer David Cox.
Mother-in-law Anne Cox taught Susan how to be a farm wife.
“She taught me preservation, how to butcher a hog,” Susan says. “It is amazing what you’ll do for love. But I grew to love and respect farming and the family dynamic.”
Sowing the Future
The Spider Hall Farm Agricultural Education Center, LLC is developing according to a five-year plan, explains Catherine, the 25-year-old entrepreneur.
A board of directors was established this year. An old tobacco barn is a future farm museum, Catherine says, where visitors will see what it was like to work on a farm before automation.
Connected to the barn museum, planned to open next fall, Catherine is planning an 8,000-square-foot, two-story building with six classrooms. “Classrooms will be lab style,” she says, “for maximum interaction.”
The Spider Hall Farm Agricultural Education Center — with a wall of windows overlooking the working farm — will offer daylong classes from elementary to adult education.
A full commercial kitchen will be set up to teach food preservation and food safety.
“I want it all to be reality by the time I’m 30,” Catherine says