They’ve given away the pigs. Sold some of the goats and rabbits. And now farmer John McKenzie V sits by the fire in his wooden farmhouse in Baldwin wondering what he will do next.

Just a few months ago, McKenzie and his wife, Stacey, welcomed families to Fresh McKenzie farm to pet the guinea pigs, feed the goats and bump along bucolic green pastures on a hayride. But now the attraction has been shut down due to a family dispute.

“We’re devastated,” said Stacey McKenzie. “Heartbroken. We’ve put our whole heart and soul into the farm. We didn’t charge a lot of money because we wanted to make it accessible to everyone.”

At issue is the cheerful farm on Patterson Road that school groups and families have visited since 2008. The 72-acre property on which the farm sits is owned by a family trust composed of McKenzie and his two sisters, Mary Stuart McKenzie and Ann Thomas McKenzie. The sisters have complained in legal filings about the traffic, visitors and legal liabilities brought by Fresh McKenzie farm.

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Farmer John McKenzie sits by the fireplace in his home at Fresh McKenzie farm in Baldwin, Maryland on Jan. 17, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

After legal wrangling, the siblings agreed two years ago that John and Stacey McKenzie would pay $11,000 into the trust each year in order to continue operating the farm. The couple says they have spent at least that much maintaining the farm, paving the private road through the property and updating buildings that are part of the trust. But they don’t have $22,000 in cash to cover the past two years of the fee. And so, they had to close the farm.

The sisters declined to comment. “We feel that it’s inappropriate to comment on ongoing litigation,” Mary Stuart McKenzie said in a joint phone call with her sister. They requested that The Baltimore Banner not contact their attorney.

6-week-old puppies try to escape their enclosure at Fresh McKenzie farm in Baldwin, Maryland on Jan. 17, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The McKenzie family has lived on the property for 62 years, since John was a preschooler. All three siblings grew up on these rolling hills, and all still live here: the sisters in “the big house,” the white 19th century mansion where they grew up, and John and Stacey in a rustic farmhouse.

John, who owned a waste management business, and Stacey, a former elementary school teacher, opened Fresh McKenzie in 2008. “I knew what would be fabulous for a field trip,” said Stacey McKenzie. “Our whole farm is based on a hands-on learning approach for kids.”

That makes Fresh McKenzie — which my family has visited many times and hosted birthday parties at — different from most farm attractions. Children can cuddle with guinea pigs and rabbits, pet baby chicks, feed goats and be led on pony rides on a green hill overlooking cornfields. A gaggle of curious corgis and a lumbering, affable Newfoundland named Walter greet visitors.

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The admission was $8 per person, less than most other family-friendly farms. The couple is particularly welcoming to groups of people with special needs and hires teens with developmental differences to work with the animals.

John McKenzie V said he opened Fresh McKenzie with the blessing of his mother, Mary Pine O’Rourk McKenzie, who had been the sole owner of the property since his father’s death decades ago. She gave her son and daughter-in-law $5,000 in seed money, welcomed visitors, worked at the corn maze and sold Christmas trees, according to court documents filed by John McKenzie V.

A sheep cries out to greet farmer John McKenzie at Fresh McKenzie farm in Baldwin, Maryland on Jan. 17, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

When Mary Pine O’Rourk McKenzie died in 2017, she willed that the property, valued at $1.9 million, would be put in a trust shared equally by her three children. All three can live there rent-free, the will stipulates, and the trust cannot be dissolved for at least 15 years, unless all three agree to do so sooner.

The will does not specifically mention Fresh McKenzie, which occupies a small portion of the estate, located about 10 miles northeast of Towson. The farm continued to grow after the matriarch’s death, hosting Easter egg hunts, field trips, a summer camp, fall festivities, birthday parties, scouting events, Christmas tree and wreath sales, and a private Christmas nativity for members of John and Stacey’s church.

But the McKenzie siblings’ relationship started to sour over a dispute over the antique furnishings and jewelry their mother had left them. Things further deteriorated in 2021, when Ann Thomas McKenzie’s daughter wished to hold a wedding at the farm in late October — a peak time for farm visitors.

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A sign for Fresh McKenzie’s sits in storage in one of the farm’s barns in Baldwin, Maryland, on Jan. 17, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The couple closed the farm for the weekend for the wedding, but the conflict over the antiques and jewelry and the management of the rental properties boiled over into court. John and Stacey McKenzie filed suit demanding to see accounting records for the trust.

In a countersuit, the sisters alleged that their brother had run Fresh McKenzie “without [their] prior or ongoing approval or consent.” Fresh McKenzie visitors invaded their privacy and “caused excessive wear and tear on the infrastructure of the Property (road, barns, outbuildings, fences, grass, etc.), all requiring higher than normal past, present and future repair and maintenance costs,” according to court documents.

The couple rebuts these allegations. “This farm has never looked better than it does now,” said Stacey McKenzie, ticking off a list of improvements that she and her husband have made. They hauled away junk cars and hundreds of old tires, planted gardens, constructed a pond, built pens for animals and helped to refurbish rental properties, she said. The farm was open to the public for about seven Saturdays in the fall and two or three Saturdays in December, Stacey McKenzie said. Crowds for other events — field trips, scouting gatherings and birthday parties — were much smaller.

The McKenzie sisters also claimed in the countersuit that their brother was pocketing profits from Fresh McKenzie and not allowing them to inspect the farm’s books. But in competing court filings, John McKenzie V alleged that his sisters did not allow him to see the accounting for the rental properties that the trust manages. Both sides denied the other’s claims.

Alpacas roam around their fenced-in enclosure at Fresh McKenzie farm in Baldwin, Maryland, on Jan. 17, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The siblings hashed out an agreement on the hours and operation of the farm — including the $11,000 annual rent — and asked attorney Carroll S. Klingelhofer III, the executor of their mother’s estate, to put it in writing.

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The attorney’s exasperation with the family is apparent in a letter he wrote to Baltimore County Circuit Judge C. Carey Deeley Jr. in March, explaining he was not up to the task because he was approaching 80, on the cusp of retirement and “reluctant to get involved again because of ‘history.’” He wrote that he never heard from the parties’ attorneys: “My experience with the family ‘chalked it up’ to another ‘failure’ to get along.”

But in November, Circuit Judge Garret P. Glennon Jr. ruled that the agreement should be enforced and a different lawyer should draw up the details. John and Stacey McKenzie’s attorney, Tyler Nowicki, filed an appeal; a hearing is scheduled for March, Nowicki said.

Yet earlier this month, the sisters’ attorney filed a motion to find John McKenzie V in contempt of court for failing to sign the settlement and pay rent for the past two years.

Farmer Stacey McKenzie sits by the fireplace in her home at Fresh McKenzie farm in Baldwin, Maryland, on Jan. 17, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Meanwhile, fans of the farm are bereft. “John puts back into the farm much more than he takes out,” said Howard Phelps, a partner at High’s dairy stores and Carroll Independent Fuel and a longtime friend of John. He noted the many improvements that the couple had made to the property.

Dawn Schulten, who runs a nonprofit called Stand Tall and Reach for the Stars, brings young adults with special needs to Fresh McKenzie to practice interpersonal skills. “It’s so nice because it’s old school,” she said of the farm. “It’s perfect for these guys. Some are very scared of the animals, but Stacey doesn’t push anything on them. If they scream, it’s OK.”

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Schulten said the McKenzies never charged her group to visit the farm and helped young people develop confidence around animals. “Stacey makes them feel like they have a purpose,” she said. “It breaks my heart that they’re closing.”

Back at the farmhouse, the McKenzies said they aren’t sure what they’re going to do next. They need to sell or give away many of the animals because they can’t continue to afford their feed and care.

“All I want to do is honor and glorify God and let these children leave here with a smile on their face,” said John McKenzie V, as he put another log in the couple’s wood stove. “And that rug has been pulled out from under me.”

Julie Scharper is a news enterprise reporter who writes about interesting people, places, trends and traditions in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. She seeks to answer the question: What does it mean to be alive in this time and place? 

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