An entertaining harvest

Cash: Farmers are obtaining sorely needed revenue by allowing the public to pick its own and soak up rural atmosphere.

July 06, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Working all morning between green rows flecked with scarlet berries, Sheila Max and her sons harvested 5 pounds of fruit they could call their own.

It wasn't their farm -- they don't own it or even lease it. But for a few hours, it was nice to pretend, until they filled their buckets and walked to the cashier to pay.

"We live in a townhouse," said Max, a Columbia resident who visits Larriland Farm in western Howard County several times every summer to pick fruit. In the fall, the family comes back for apples, pumpkins and hayrides.

But "entertainment farming," as insiders call it, is not just about the crop. The biggest crowds come in October for the pumpkins, corn mazes and scarecrow-stuffing.

For farms such as Larriland in Woodbine and Baugher's in Westminster, the decision to open to the paying public has ensured profitability for current and future generations.

"This land would have only supported one family, not four," said Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm. She was a teen-ager in 1973 when her father, Laurence, decided he would have to multiply his profits if the family farm was to provide a living for his children. He had been raising grain, hay and turf. The turf was bringing in money, but it was also wearing out his soil. So he planted an acre of strawberries and let people pick them.

Now, the 91 acres of fruit and vegetables, and the attraction of a farm where people can pay for the privilege of soaking up rural atmosphere, provide the main income for four households, those of Laurence and his wife, Polly, and those of three of their four grown children.

The entertainment part "tends to be more lucrative than the actual growing of the crop," said Lynn Moore.

"People are willing to pay more for luxuries than for necessities," she said. "They want the food to be cheap."

So the Moores -- all of the adult children have built homes at Larriland -- keep the family farm intact and thriving by opening it up to the paying public.

Families not fortunate enough to have their own farm can buy the privilege of cutting tender spinach leaves and yanking beets out of the ground.

The concept of entertainment farming is 20 to 30 years old, depending on your definition of entertainment. It's even older if you include Edward Baugher, who opened a restaurant in 1948 to draw more customers to his orchard market.

"He figured he would attract people to eat, and when they were leaving they'd buy a basket of fruit to take home," said Allan Baugher, son of the late Edward. Allan, his brother, Dan, and sister, Dottie Dunn, are among the partners in Baugher Enterprises, made up of a grain farm, orchards, two retail markets, a restaurant, bakery and petting zoo.

The increase in mass harvesting and refrigerated shipping of fruit over the last 30 to 50 years led many small local farmers to start pick-your-own operations, said Polly Moore.

"Now, fruit comes from Florida, Chile, New Zealand," she said. "The use of the refrigerated truck ruined the [local] market."

Allan Baugher said that in the 1950s, when he joined his father at the orchard, he built up the retail side of the business. Canneries weren't paying enough for the farm to prosper, he said.

Then, one year, the rain made the cherries split. Wholesale dealers would have rejected them or paid next to nothing.

"We thought if we had people come to pick the cherries, they'd see that the cherries were OK," Baugher said. It worked.The pick-your-own operation was expanded, and it grew from there.

Market `diluted'

In the fall, bus loads of school groups come for a tractor-wagon ride through the farm, ending with a chance to choose a pumpkin to take home. It's a formula duplicated by many -- maybe too many -- entertainment farms in the area.

"The market share has been diluted," said Tommy Albright, a vegetable, grain and nursery farmer in Jacksonville, Baltimore County, who was a partner in an autumn entertainment farm in Long Green Valley. The partners closed the operation four years ago: One of three such farms in a three-mile radius, it wasn't making enough profit.

"In the last seven years, these pumpkin farms and hayrides have been popping up everywhere," Albright said. "There's only so many dollars to go around."

Entertainment farming isn't for everyone, he said. People skills are a must. And someone has to work with school systems to develop a curriculum for each age group so that field trips can fulfill the schools' educational criteria.

`People-intensive'

"It's real people-intensive," Albright said. "Let me tell you, when you're dealing with 10,000 kids in the space of two weeks, and they're all screaming, by the end of the day you can pull your hair out."

Some of the so-called pumpkin farms are not farms at all, he said. He knows, because he grows pumpkins for a chain with locations in Maryland, Florida, New York and Wisconsin. These businesses buy pumpkins from other farmers and scatter them in a field for children to choose.

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