Crist facing challenge, not a barrier
ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — For a while, doctors thought Nora Crist had Lyme disease.
She was in college when the pain began in her thumbs. It spread to her hands, wrists and eventually every joint her in body. It was excruciating and, at times, immobilizing.
Lyme disease made sense, they thought. She’s a farmer, who spends much of her day outside. But the pain persisted.
Doctors eventually settled on a diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic, cureless inflammatory disorder that afflicts more than 1.5 million people nationwide.
Crist, 30, is a farmer nonetheless.
“It is still something I’m mentally dealing with,” she said. “I have good days and bad days. On a good day, I can do this without any help. On a bad day, I can’t do this at all. I need someone else to completely do it for me.”
It’s been a challenge but not a barrier to Crist’s agricultural life at Clark’s Elioak Farm, her family’s 540-acre operation in Howard County. Following her return to the farm after graduating from the University of Delaware’s agricultural college in 2009, Crist has expanded its offerings, building a vibrant produce operation and helping to manage a 100-percent-grass-fed retail beef operation that’s helped the eclectic and quirky farm survive in an ever-changing suburban market.
She runs the farm with her mother, Martha Clark. Her father, Douglas Crist, died at 52 from complications related to cancer in 2000, Nora Crist said.
Though the farm had been in the family for more than two centuries, its production had been in decline for years. With her husband gone, Martha Clark decided to refresh the operation, first with a petting farm and educational venue in 2002. Nora and her brother Nate managed the family’s roadside produce stand as teens.
The family also built the farm’s most conspicuous feature: the Enchanted Forest, which is hard to miss while driving by on Clarksville Pike. The attraction, which includes a large, orange Cinderella pumpkin coach, a massive Mother Goose and a giant, purple “Old Woman’s Shoe”, was assembled over several years and repurposed from the shuttered remains of The Enchanted Forest, a famous Ellicott City storybook park built in 1955 and closed in the early ‘90s.
Crist now helps manage the petting farm, the cattle operation and a vegetable operation. The cattle operation is about 150 cows, perhaps a little too large for the farm, she said, but it allows the family to pick through the herd’s genetics and tailor it perfectly to the land and their retailing needs.
It’s been an ideal setup for Nora, who was reluctant to embark on a farming career somewhere else after college when she was battling a disorder that attacks the lining of her joints.
“I wasn’t sure on any given day what I’d be capable of, and I didn’t want to take on working for somebody else if some days I’d be fine and some days I wouldn’t,” she said. “I didn’t want to move somewhere and be alone and incapable.”
She developed a summer CSA that includes lettuces, spinach, kale, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, tomatoes and cantaloupes. The farm’s roadside stand also has fall and spring vegetables, all of it grown without pesticides or fertilizers.
The farm attracts hundreds of visitors each week when it’s open for six to eight months out of the year. It’s been revitalized, Crist said. The symptoms of her arthritis have eased over the last several years, which she credits to a gluten-free diet that eliminated much of her pain. It also allowed her to stop taking medication for the disorder, which can have heavy side effects. But she still works to manage pain.
“I don’t know how she does it everyday,” said her mother, Martha Clark. “I think she’s in pain most of the time. She’s an inspiration.”
Nora said her produce operation has plenty of runway to expand, but finding reliable farm labor has been a problem, and her health tends to deteriorate in the summer. She’s noticed that many of her peers who began farming in their 20s are winding down their agricultural careers by their 30s to make more money elsewhere. She said she’s ready to hand off some of her farming duties to the right employee.
Moving back to the family farm has worked out, however, she said — even if she wasn’t sure about it after she graduated.
“It was a kind of mental defeat, which is why I was sort of determined to turn it into something positive here,” she said.
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