Charlie is having a birthday soon

The frigid weather did not stop Charlie from harvesting 30 heads of lettuce for the Saturday market. 

Don't forget to wish him a happy birthday next weekend. 

Article about Charlie in This week"s Post

A farmer’s dream in downtown Silver Spring

By Lori Aratani, Published: June 10

In the shadow of the multi-story office and apartment buildings of downtown Silver Spring, a few blocks from traffic-clogged roads, is a one-acre plot where customers swear by the lettuce, the tomatoes and their caretaker, Charlie Koiner.

Almost every day for nearly 30 years, Koiner, 90, has been there, along with his daughter Lynn, raising locally grown, sustainable produce long before the world considered it fashionable.

“When you step onto his plot. it doesn’t feel like you’re in the city anymore, even though it’s only two or three blocks away from downtown,” said Ian Cook, one of two local filmmakers who collaborated on a documentary about Koiner and his daughter.

The two tend to a wide selection of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in the field next to their home. Regulars know they can pop by the Koiner home almost anytime for a few heads of lettuce, some kale or a handful of grape kiwis when they’re in season.

The farm — really a series of plots — isn’t a huge moneymaker for the pair. And although they probably could sell the parcel and retire with the proceeds, that prospect holds little appeal for the elder Koiner.

“At my age, it gives me something to do,” he said as he puttered about one recent Saturday, checking on his kale and bok choy. “This acre is just enough.”

Koiner has the aches and pains of a man heading into his 10th decade on Earth. He had triple bypass surgery in 1987, but for the most part, he says, he feels fit.

His daily uniform is simple — neatly pressed khakis, a short-sleeved button-down shirt, baseball cap and sturdy brown work boots. He doesn’t wear gloves, preferring the feel of the dirt and the vegetables he tends with his hands.

He doesn’t mind questions or even giving the occasional tour — but he’s not above cutting off conversation when he thinks it’s time to get back to work.

The Koiners have been farming their little acre of land since 1982. In those days, Silver Spring’s downtown was not the urban mecca it is today, but even then, many thought it made more sense to build homes rather than grow crops. Lynn Koiner, 65, recalled the puzzled reactions of developers upon learning that her father planned to raise crops — not houses — on the parcel.

“Back then, it was a pretty off-the-wall idea,” Cook added. “To take that entire piece of land and turn it into an urban garden? Back [then], it wasn’t on the priority list for anyone.”

Still, it was what Koiner — a farmer all his life — knew best. He was born in Montgomery County when horses and buggies traveled along what is now Rockville Pike. His family owned 33 acres, where Mid-Pike Plaza, home to the Toys R Us, now sits.

Farmer in a starring role

Koiner is choosy about the fruits and vegetables he grows. He shies away from heirloom tomatoes (“too much trouble to raise”) and is partial to a certain type of eggplant.

But it’s the lettuce that is his pride and joy. He grows only three varieties — Green Ice, romaine and Sierra Blush, in part because he thinks they’re best suited for the hot, muggy, Washington area climate.

Two years ago, Koiner caught the eye of Cook and filmmaking partner Andre Dahlman. Dahlman, who works in downtown Silver Spring, was looking for a place to buy fresh homegrown produce and his boss recommended he check out Koiner’s farm. The fresh produce was excellent — but Koiner’s story was even better. The resulting documentary — “Corner Plot” — was shown at festivals in the area. It was recently among the films chosen by the State Department to be shown at embassies around the world as part of a public diplomacy initiative. Dahlman said the Koiners may make their film debut in Tajikistan.

Koiner seems amused by the attention. But the idea that something he’s done all his life is creating a stir makes him chuckle. His frank appraisal of the film?

“It was nice,” he said. “I thought the vegetables looked really good.”

‘I love his greens’

Saturdays are Koiner’s busiest day. On this particular one, he has been up since 5 a.m. harvesting his signature crop — lettuce — for sale at the farmer’s market in downtown Silver Spring. He’s also filling an order for 50 heads from the folks at Snider’s Super Market, where his lettuce has become such a popular offering it often sells out in less than 30 minutes.

Koiner moves carefully through the plots, eyeing the lettuce for signs that it’s ready. Using a small kitchen knife, he bends over and carefully severs the stalk. The heads look like bright green fans in his rough hands.

For a moment, Koiner seems to slip into another world.

“That’s a beautiful head of lettuce, mmmm-hmmm . . . yes,” he says to himself, holding the head at arm’s length and nodding slowly.

At the market, several customers are already lined up at Koiner’s stand even before the 9 a.m. starting bell rings.

“Morning, Charlie,” says Marcia Custer of Silver Spring. “Your lettuce is fabulous. I got your Green Ice last week.”

Custer has been regular at Koiner’s stand since she discovered him five years ago.

“I love his greens, and his tomatoes are just great,” she said. “There’s nothing he grows that I don’t like.”

Helen Register credits Koiner with encouraging her to try vegetables that might otherwise have intimidated her.

“I’m a city girl,” she said. “I don’t know anything about farming.”

Lynn's thoughts on Saturday's screening

I took Charlie over to the theater at 11am on Saturday and he was thrilled to get into an air conditioned theater. I wanted him to see his film as a part of all of the films.
It was in a large theater (Friday was in the smallest theater) and it was packed with his friends and customers. Everyone was thrilled to see him come in. Andre and Ian's mom had a seat for him. I went back to the market to help my neighbors finish selling and a good thing too. We sold out by 12pm so we packed up the truck and they got to go home. I went back for the Q&A. It was incredible so see Charlie up on the stage. One of the other young film makers was so impressed with the film and our story. Her mom takes care of her own mother and she sees the love they have for each other.
What shocked me the most was that the audience told me that they got to see another side of me...not the independent Lynn but the sensitive Lynn.
It would be great if we could have a showing and lots of Q&A at the B&O. I even have a lot of questions. I would also like to Skype in Ian's mom and ask her for comments that her son was making while filming. Ian's dad has a farm and goes to the market every Saturday (Ohio) so he could not be at AFI.
I will send photos later but it was rather dark in the theater.

After the screening, people mobbed poor Charlie and finally the staff had to throw us all out. I met someone from Leggett's office and he knows how to get the ball rolling for tax reduction. Lots of people want to preserve this farm for the future and I would love this too. I know that I will have other farmers work the land when Charlie is gone. My only thoughts so far have been to preserve the house until all of my cats are gone. But, it would be great to preserve the land as a historic site for other gardeners.

PS It was the filmmaker, Maria Fortiz-Morse, who came up to me after the Saturday showing (she had seen the film twice) to tell me how she was touched by the film and my relationship with my dad.
Maria's own film was a very sensitive look at the homes lost through mortgage default.

Recent news about Charlie's Film

Here is a link to the movie trailer:

Here is a link to a recent post on the Washington Gardener Blog.
It mentions that June 19th is Charlie Koiner Day at the Farmer's Market. "The Market will be held at the Panera Parking Lot at Georgia Ave and Colesville Road.."

Charlie's film at SilverDocs

Charlie's film will screen three times. Tuesday's premiere is a free outside screening.

Run time: 10 min. | USA

In the heart-warming short CORNER PLOT, 89-year-old Charlie Koiner cares for a one-acre piece of farmland that rests just inside the beltway of urban Washington DC. With help from his daughter, Charlie continues to work the land and share the fruits of his labor at the local farmer’s market. In a rapidly changing modern world, this unique farmer remains dedicated to the life he has always known.

9:30 PM Tue, Jun 22
Silver Plaza - Outdoor
screens with...

* MICROCOSMOS | Marie PĂ©rennou, Claude Nuridsany 1996

9:00 PM Fri, Jun 25 AFI Silver Theater 3
screens with...

* Shorts Program 5: GHOSTS OF THE PAST
* BYE BYE NOW | Aideen O'Sullivan 2010
* MARIA'S WAY | Anne Milne 2009
* NOTES ON THE OTHER | Sergio Oksman 2009
* SELTZER WORKS | Jessica Edwards 2010
* SPACE YOU LEAVE, THE | James Newton 2009
* TRASH-OUT | Maria Fortiz-Morse 2009

11:15 AM
AFI Silver Theater 2 Sat, Jun 26
screens with...

* Shorts Program 5: GHOSTS OF THE PAST
* BYE BYE NOW | Aideen O'Sullivan 2010
* MARIA'S WAY | Anne Milne 2009
* NOTES ON THE OTHER | Sergio Oksman 2009
* SELTZER WORKS | Jessica Edwards 2010
* SPACE YOU LEAVE, THE | James Newton 2009
* TRASH-OUT | Maria Fortiz-Morse 2009

Recipe CD

We do have a CD of recipes that we send out to customers using Charlie's produce. It is $10 and it goes to the friend who organized it, who is unemployed.

We will continue to have the contest, guessing how many ribbons Charlie wins at the county fair. Prize -- Tomatoes from the garden. If there is a duplication, more than one prize will be given. This will occur in late August.
~ Lynn Koiner