Bumper crop of tourists is goal of focus on farms

May 22, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Joan Meekins is determined to kill the notion that "there's nothing to do in Carroll County."

"My answer is always, 'There's plenty to do,' " said Ms. Meekins, head of the county tourism office. "We have a charm and attraction that appeals to a large number of people."

One attraction is agriculture, she said. And Ms. Meekins, in cooperation with Tom Ford of the extension service, is determined to highlight what Carroll has to offer through "agri-tourism."

"We want to focus on those kinds of projects that raise the awareness of the importance of agriculture in Carroll County," she said. "It's an exciting niche to be in and a very important one for recognizing what our county stands for."

Agri-tourism is "a business conducted by a farming operation for the enjoyment and education of the public and to promote the products of the farm and thereby generate additional farm income," Mr. Ford said.

"One of the best examples is the farmers' markets," said Ms. Meekins, noting that many out-of-county visitors spend the day in Carroll after attending the markets.

Other possibilities include opening a farm for tours or sporting events, bed and breakfast operations, fee fishing ventures on stocked ponds and "city slicker" opportunities to work on a farm, Mr. Ford said.

Even autumn hay rides and pumpkin-picking with school groups fit under the umbrella of agri-tourism, he said.

"Right now, there are about five or six operations that are dabbling in agri-tourism," Mr. Ford said. "You're not going to get rich from any of these alternatives, but it's a contribution to your income."

One Smithsburg farmer, whose main income is from peaches, brings in $5,000 to $6,000 a year with the fee fishing operation at his orchard, Mr. Ford said.

"There are no peaches this year," he said, referring to the hard freeze last winter that wiped out Maryland's peach crop. "The fee fishing will be a more important aspect of his income this year."

One 4-H member is setting up agricultural petting zoos for stores, Mr. Ford said. Another farmer, John Carty of Silver Run, has set up a subscription service in which people get a percentage of his crop for buying a share.

"These people can relate to the farmer's trials and tribulations," Mr. Ford said. "If there's a drought, they get less produce."

Mr. Ford and Ms. Meekins are also trying to encourage local restaurants to buy produce from Carroll County farmers, they said.

"I think it would be something chefs could say with pride, that the produce was grown locally," Ms. Meekins said.

Ford said he and Ms. Meekins are working to inform restaurant owners of the variety of produce grown in Carroll County. One farmer, for example, grows white asparagus and several kinds of lettuce, he said.

Restaurants need small quantities of produce several times a week, a demand Carroll County's 5- to 10-acre farmers find easier to meet than than the larger requirements of grocery stores, Mr. Ford said.

"Restaurants will pay retail" rather than the wholesale prices grocery stores pay, he said. "They'll also pay a premium for high-quality produce."

For Diane Hale, who owns the Galloping Goose outside Manchester, entering the tourism business was almost an accident. At first, people came up to her family's nearly 100-acre animal farm and greenhouse operation to watch sheep-shearing.

"We've had people coming in for the shearing forever," said Ms. Hale, noting that visitors can stand in the large, open shed that houses the sheep if the weather is bad.

"People will be standing outside, hanging over the fence asking questions," she said. "They get samples of wool and talk to my boys."

Then, about two years ago, the family began inviting to the farm some of the customers to whom they sold bedding plants at farmers' markets in Washington, she said.

"We'd be meeting people and tell ing them that we have pigs and chickens," Ms. Hale said. "We'd say, 'Meet the family. Come up and visit.' "

To her surprise, visitors might stay for hours and buy up to $150 worth of bedding plants, she said.

At Christmas, the Hales had a two-day open house, selling trees, wreaths and poinsettias during a sheep-shearing demonstration.

They also sold lamb stew and soup and provided free apple cider for refreshments, she said. Carroll County's tourism office helped distribute her fliers, Ms. Hale said.

The rainy, cold weekend contained at least one surprise, when a ewe gave birth to triplets, she said.

"The city kids thought it was cool, like I had planned it," Ms. Hale said. "I still get calls to find out how they [the lambs] are doing."

One pair of sisters, ages 6 and 7, spent the entire day in the pen, wiping off the lambs and helping them nurse for the first time. A woman dressed in a full-length leather coat and an expensive sweater was so enchanted she immediately gathered one of the cold, wet animals into her arms.

"It was so cold and nasty, she took to warming the lambs under her jacket," Ms. Hale said of her visitor. "She spent an hour and a half with a wet lamb under her jacket.

"I would never have done that," she said with a laugh.

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