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This is part of a monthly series about side gigs—nurses with interesting side jobs or hobbies. This month, we spotlight a nurse’s family farm.
For 40 years, Eileen Shlagel, RN, CEN, has worked as a nurse, the last 30 of them in the Emergency Department of University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center in La Plata, Maryland.
“I feel honored to be able to work in a career that I love and in a hospital that I love,” says Shlagel, who now works part-time. Another added bonus? Her only daughter also works there.
That’s not Eileen’s only job, though. Since the mid-1980s, Shlagel and her husband have been operating the family farm, Shlagel Farms, LLC. Located in Southern Maryland, Shlagel Farms is a Century Farm—this is a title of recognition given to any farm that has been operating continuously for at least 100 years. Shlagel says that in the state of Maryland, there is a ceremony every couple of years, at which the Governor presents the farmers with a sign and a certificate.
By 1990, the Shlagels had five children, and they would work with their parents every day. Today, they grow many different kinds of fruits and vegetables. They raise cattle, turkeys, chickens, and a few pigs, and also grow horse-quality straw, wheat, and hay. Shlagel says that in addition to operating a farm store, they also sell their goods at 10 Farmers Markets in the Washington, DC/Baltimore area. They also provide their produce to two major grocery chains and to a broker who sells supplies to area restaurants.
Three of her sons work at the farm full-time, and, overall, the farm supports 12 families.
“I personally take care of the 19 bee hives, go to Farmers Markets, schedule and run the field trips that we host for kids, do payroll, keep the books, schedule the employees, and wash all of the chicken eggs. I’m in charge of the USDA Certified Food Safety Program,” says Shlagel. “When you live on a farm, you work there full time. There is always something that needs to be done—from first thing in the morning until dark.”
Shlagel believes that people would be surprised how scientific farming is. “It’s so much more than putting a seed in a hole and giving it water. We attend classes every winter to learn the latest techniques, updates, and legislative issues that could impact our business from the USDA, FDA, or the Maryland Department of Agriculture,” Shlagel explains. “A farmer must be a biologist, a chemist, a vet, a careful money manager, and you have to be really adept at prioritizing. You can do everything right, but if it’s at the wrong time, it’s worthless. Timing is everything.”
The most rewarding part of the job for Shlagel is spending time with three of her sons as well as her 13 grandchildren. “It’s rewarding teaching them how to complete jobs that will make them feel successful and proud of themselves. Recently, I took three of them to the green bean field to pick a mess for dinner. They picked them and snapped the ends off and then we cooked them together and they ate them for dinner. Additionally, I love to show them all of the beauty in nature. We take walks around the farm, and we might spot a frog or a snake or a turtle and we talk about it and then they research it later,” says Shlagel.
The greatest challenge that Shlagel has faced on the farm was learning to care for and expand their Apiary. “I took a class and read two books, but that in no way prepares you to be surrounded by 50,000 stinging insects! I had assumed incorrectly that you put them in a box, and they go pollinate and everything is lovely,” admits Shlagel. “They require inspections every two weeks, which still take me five to six hours. You have to make adjustments in their living area, give them water and food in the winter, and make sure their Queen is alive and happy. Most of what could go wrong, did for me in the first year, but I have learned to fix the problems before they get bad. And I have certainly learned to take a sting!
Even though she worked two full-time jobs for many years—nursing and farming—Shlagel says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love every single day that I go to work at the hospital, and I am very happy at home, working outside with my family.”