BEATING THE ODDS 2016
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Loss, debt don’t diminish young couple’s determination
THURMONT, Md. — On a particular night one or two years ago, there had been another argument inside the Huffman home, and Brandon, in his early 20s, left the house and his young wife, Taylor, to cool off. He drove to one of three farms the couple owned and thought.
“I left the house because I was just tired of it,” Brandon, 24, said, remembering earlier this month as he sat next to his 23-year-old wife inside a barn on their property.
Brandon and Taylor had been together since 2008 after they’d met in high school. A lot of things had happened since, some of them great (such as their marriage), many of them not.
They were married in 2013 on the farm, owned by Taylor’s father, Jan Lawyer, well-known for his hay, dairy and agritourism operation here in Frederick County.
Three months later, Jan died. He was 54.
After making the stressful decision to take over the farms instead of selling them, Taylor and Brandon confronted the farms’ debt. It totaled more than $1 million.
Eventually they would discover their barn, a venue that hosted more than 30 weddings and events a year, was to be shut down by the county due to zoning issues. Also, Nextel, the wireless communications company, shuttered and stopped paying them to operate a cell phone tower on their property, sucking more monthly income from their operation.
“I will not lie,” Brandon said. “There were moments where we were both wondering if we were going to come out of that.”
Taylor and Brandon met in high school. They both graduated early at 16 years old. Brandon grew up working for his parents’ successful commercial glass company, and Taylor was raised under two entrepreneurial parents who ran multiple farms and built houses in the Thurmont area. But her parents’ marriage ended in a costly divorce, Taylor said, pushing the farm deeper into debt.
“I didn’t like school, and I just wanted to get out,” Brandon said.
“I did it because I was never into the drama, like the social aspect that came along with the school,” Taylor said.
Brandon raced ATVs on a national circuit, which took his family to points across the country on weekends. Taylor followed him for a year.
“I don’t think most girls would have enjoyed that, but I did,” she said.
Then Brandon broke his back during a race. He quit to embrace a life on the Lawyer family farm where he spent many days working with Taylor’s father, cutting hay, helping with the agritourism operation or weddings. Many days were spent working the farm, the three of them going into town with Taylor’s father for dinner and returning home to bed.
“I think that’s where my business side came in,” Taylor said. “We were always older and more mature for our age. … We were more of best friends with my dad than we were, like, kids.”
Instead of college, the couple decided to buy a home in the area and renovate it with the intent of moving in or flipping it. Taylor got her real estate license. She excelled in a short amount of time, racking up listings and working long hours.
“(Brandon) can do just about anything. And I sell real estate. So it made it easy to get in and find good deals and resell them,” she said.
Then, in February 2012, Taylor’s father got sick.
“He was perfectly healthy his entire life,” she said. “Never smoked. Didn’t drink alcohol. Didn’t take medicine. Never went to the hospital. Never broke a bone.”
Jan passed out while laying a patio near the event barn, she said. He was taken to Frederick Memorial Hospital where he was diagnosed with a stress disorder and placed on antidepressants for six months.
Five months later, it happened again.
“We found him bleeding, coughing up blood,” Taylor said. “He wasn’t shaking, but he would just freeze and nothing broke it.”
They took him to Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. Doctors there looked at an old scan taken at Frederick Memorial and asked him to come in immediately.
His stress disorder was a misdiagnosis. It was glioblastoma, a brain tumor the size of a small fist. It’s also mostly untreatable.
He headed into surgery — the first of three — a month later in August 2012. Then another.
“After the first two surgeries, he was down here on the farm within three days, running equipment and acting like nothing was wrong,” Taylor said. “But he looked like Frankenstein with his head stapled. And I was having to, like, force him to drink water and eat meals and take it easy. I had to chase him around essentially.”
Taylor and Brandon were married in August. Jan was there. Later, during his third surgery, he suffered a stroke and developed a blood clot in his heart.
“He didn’t stand a chance,” Taylor said.
Jan Lawyer died in December 2013. He left Taylor, Brandon, Taylor’s younger brother and a large agricultural operation that included four farms. After a process that caused considerable strife within the family, the couple said, her brother, Hunter, inherited one of the farms, she inherited another and they purchased the other two outright.
Taylor was also left to care for Jan’s 95-year-old mother, who lived in a home on the property.
“I was cooking. I was bathing her in the mornings. I was dressing her,” Taylor said. “There was lots of nights where (Brandon) went to bed alone because I was down there putting her to bed… so it was hard. And that was all within our first year of marriage.”
While developing a business plan for the farming operation by themselves, Taylor was also working 50- to 60-hour weeks as a real estate agent. Time away from work was also spent working.
“Anytime I had free time, I changed my clothes, and I baled hay while he stacked it,” she said. “It causes tension because I come home very stressed out, and I take it out on him.”
They said they were driven simply by a love for farming. But there were other factors too. After Jan died, Taylor and Brandon said they often heard people within the town say they assumed the Lawyer family farms would be sold, a presumption that hurt, Taylor said. They also feared if they didn’t try farming now, it would slip out of reach for them in the future.
“In this area, I don’t think you can get into agriculture without it being in the family. A 20 percent down payment? In this area, you’re not going to get a farm for less than a million dollars. And $200,000, what millennial has that saved? Most of them spend it,” Taylor said. “I know plenty of people that would love to get into farming… but realistically they can’t get into it.”
Since then, it’s been difficult. Rewarding, they said, but difficult. They make income from several rental homes on their property. They also farm 300 acres of hay
They do a lot of the work themselves, Taylor said. She remembers a particularly difficult day last summer when Brandon hand-stacked 800 bales of hay by himself in 95-degree weather.
“It causes tension sometimes because we were raised totally different. But he’s obviously now on the other side of the fence,” Taylor said, laughing. “And he’s doing just fine. I think if you love what you do it doesn’t matter.”
The initial plan was for Taylor to leave her real estate job and commit full time to the farm. That hasn’t happened, mostly because Frederick County’s government shut down last spring the event operation, which hosted more than 30 weddings a year, often at a price of $2,000 or more. The county has recently re-enforced agricultural zoning ordinances that seem to have been ignored in the past. A number of similar and larger agricultural event venues in the county have also been forced to halt operations or abide by ordinances that are often difficult or costly to meet.
“My family had always had events here since I was tiny,” Taylor said. “When my dad passed away, we had weddings. I just kept going. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t say, ‘OK, are we zoned properly? Are we this, are we that?’ So, it was a huge shock to us, but that’s why I had to stay in real estate.”
Coastal storms that showered much of the East Coast over the last several months led to a poor hay crop and reduced crowds at Lawyer’s Winterbrook Farms, which still include tower sculptures of scrap metal built by Jan that serve as targets for pumpkin cannons and can be seen from a distance. There’s also a popular corn maze.
But they stick to a plan. There is the farm’s income, and there is her income. The moment one starts feeding the other, they have a problem, Taylor said. The mortgage on their farm is about $10,000 a month. They plan to have it paid off by their early 40s.
Still, they said, there’s more than enough to appreciate. On a recent weekday, they enjoyed the fact that Brandon didn’t have to commute to a job. They are also farmers, something Taylor is certain she wants due to the way she’d so enthusiastically leave a day job that pays her more than what most of her peers earn.
“I’m stupid to walk away from (real estate), but I don’t like that lifestyle. I don’t like that rush-rush, you’re at everybody’s mercy,” she said.
Others are also going through much worse. Eight students from her graduating class from high school — a class she left a year early — have already died from heroin overdoses.
So far, Jan Lawyer’s farms survive.
“I’m really thankful for the way everything turned out,” Brandon said.
“But at the same time,” she said, pausing to remember her father. She started to cry. “Of course I would rather had it gone another way because growing up, I practically lived on my dirt bike during the summer. I rode that thing from farm to farm to farm. My dad built us dirt bike tracks and hay forts and he even built a teepee. And he lit it up with Tiki torches and surprised my brother and I one night. It was like a campsite. It was the coolest thing. And to think he’s not going to be here to do those things for my kids, it literally, it tears me apart. Because I really expected him to be the 90-year-old like my grandmother. She was still mowing grass at 92. So I really expected him to be like her and for us to one day take over the farms. But my dad would still be here. So it’s very hard to know that we’re doing it on our own.”