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Award-winning Western Md. farm does a lot on a little

SHARPSBURG — When Ali Mohadjer was around 7 years old, his father retired and began gardening at their home in Iran. As he helped his father with his roses and cherry trees, he said recently, he developed a “little green thumb,” and an aspiration: to one day have a little orchard, farm or garden of his own.

Ali Mohadjer with some of the vegetables he grows at Aliabaad Farm in Sharpsburg. His farm was recently named 2013 Washington County Farm of the Year. (AP/The Herald Mail)

Today, six years after purchasing a former horse farm south of Sharpsburg, Mohadjer has a growing community-supported agriculture program, a produce stand, grocery stores selling his products and plans to expand his acreage, he said.

His 33-acre farm, Aliabaad Farm, was recently named 2013 Washington County Farm of the Year.

“It’s absolutely delightful recognition because … you often work so hard with no intention of any reward, but when you’re recognized, it’s just absolutely … a pleasant surprise and recognition. Not only for me, but also for everybody engaged, assisting us, whether as an employee, or the neighbor” or someone else, said Mohadjer, 62.

Aliabaad is made up of Ali, Mohadjer’s first name, and the Persian word “abaad,” which means develop, he said.

The Farm of the Year is selected by agriculture marketing professionals across the state who review the applications and visit the finalists, said Leslie Hart, Washington County Business Development’s agriculture specialist.

“I think they were just impressed at the amount of things that were happening in a fairly small space,” Hart said.

Many times people think of a farm as having 100 acres of sweet corn or 50 acres of potatoes, Hart said. Mohadjer and his staff work on a smaller scale, but still have “a huge amount of output,” Hart said.

Mohadjer said he started in 2008 with a garden that was approximately 50 feet by 50. He said he gave away herbs and vegetables to friends and family while he learned how to grow different produce.

His crew planted produce on two acres in 2011, and he plans to expand that to about eight acres this year, he said.

Mohadjer said he also has approximately 100 chickens, about 23 goats, three sheep and two cows. He raises the chickens for eggs, and most of the livestock for meat. Without a butchering operation, he sells most of the smaller animals whole. He has a few dairy goats because he’d like eventually to produce goat cheese.

While the farm is not certified organic, Mohadjer said he uses organic practices for everything except the pesticide he sprays on his fruit trees. They planted about 80 fruit trees in the valley, but he said he has since learned that wasn’t the ideal place for them because the valley traps the cold. Mohadjer said he’s considering whether to plant more fruit trees on the sunny side of a hill or grow grapes to work with a local vineyard. He does not want to produce the wine.

Mohadjer said he took several agriculture classes at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center to learn about farming practices, soil conservation and testing, and raising farm animals. He also worked at some Chambersburg, Pa.-area farms to gain experience. One of the reasons Mohadjer has excelled in farming, he said, is because of all of the support he received locally, including from the Ag Center.

His family also has helped, Mohadjer said. His wife, Lili, provides ideas; daughter, Roya, helps with marketing; and his son, Rod, and daughter-in-law, Vicki, help with events.

He said he’s grateful he’s had opportunities in life that enabled him and Lili to buy the farm.

Mohadjer commutes from Potomac and owns an international satellite communications business based in Montgomery County. He has about 20 employees with Satways Inc. and four employees, including a caretaker, for the farm. He adds interns in the summer to help with harvesting and delivery to stores, and for a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA.

The CSA program, in which people can pay to pick up or have delivered fresh eggs, herbs, vegetables and fruit, grew to 98 clients in 2013 and is expected to expand, he said. Mohadjer said Aliabaad Farm does not require its CSA clients to accept every available item, but to choose what they want. Information about the CSA program is available at www.aliabaad.com. He recently expanded his CSA program, piloting a winter program that includes potatoes, kale, turnips and spinach. He plans to expand the May-to-October CSA, adding items such as garlic.

Whole Foods, Mixed Greens and Yekta grocery stores sell his eggs, and Whole Foods sells his produce, he said.

When the Mohadjers bought the farm in 2007, it was in bad shape, according to both Mohadjer and Hart. The farm had been the site of an animal-cruelty case in which officials seized 75 horses, miniature horses and donkeys. Mohadjer said he and his employees spent more than a year cleaning up the farm.

“I believe in vision. You have to take a look at something and you have to have a dream,” Mohadjer said.

Mohadjer has continued to work on the farm. In June 2013, he opened a produce stand, which he refers to as a visitors center.

The building was constructed where a barn stood for more than 150 years. The barn burned down in April 2012, he said. It was an extremely cold night and Mohadjer said he suspects a heat lamp caught a wooden chicken coop on fire.

Standing in front of the visitors’ center is a sign provided by Save Historic Antietam Foundation referring to the springhouse on the property. The property was researched by Civil War historian Dennis Frye, said Mohadjer, who pointed out elements of the farm in Civil War-era photographs. In one Alexander Gardner photograph that Mohadjer has in a magazine, President Abraham Lincoln, Union Gen. George B. McClellan and other generals are standing in front of tents with the springhouse in the background. Mohadjer said he shortened his pasture to create a path along the road so people can walk down to see the springhouse.

As Farm of the Year, Aliabaad Farm will receive a portrait/video session, a plaque and an outdoor farm sign noting its accomplishment, according to a news release from Washington County.

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