An oasis of rural living

Farm: An "agri-tourism" enterprise offers a look at a vanishing way of life in eastern Howard County

April 29, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Three-year-old AJ Strott held out his feed-filled hand and was suddenly a sheep's best friend.

"Hey," he protested with a laugh, as the pellets disappeared in a lightning-fast moment of munching. "It tickles!"

Thousands of children like AJ get a rare up-close visit with animals and agriculture every year at Cider Mill Farm, where they run across gently rolling land to touch chickens, milk a cow and try the fresh-squeezed drink that gives the place its name.

Welcome to Maryland farming, suburban style.

Cider Mill - two miles from Interstate 95 and a stone's throw from new subdivisions - is a 59-acre island of rural life in Elkridge, one of the region's fastest-developing areas. In Howard County's heavily populated eastern side, with perhaps a dozen farms left amid houses, industrial parks and shopping centers, it's an anachronism.

Not surprisingly, this isn't a crop-and-livestock operation.

Cider Mill practices "agri-tourism," opening to the public five months a year with a 150-animal petting farm, hayrides and seasonal attractions. Workers make cider in the fall with apples grown elsewhere; the farm once had orchards, but deer from a nearby park kept eating the fruit blossoms, along with any newly planted trees.

The farm stands instead as a symbol of Howard County's agricultural roots, a window to a once-common way of life.

Selling the farm experience

It's part of a trend statewide: As rural land makes way for development, many of the remaining farmers are - at least in part - selling the farm experience, from animals-on-display to pick-your-own operations. At least several dozen farms in the Baltimore region fit into the agri-tourism category, says Tony Evans, a spokesman with the state Department of Agriculture.

Visitors to Cider Mill say they come because their daily lives are bereft of goats, ponies and piglets.

"It's a very popular place with the kids," said Maria Hovet of Clarksville, who recently visited with two of her daughters. "I'm sure I'll be coming another half-dozen times or more."

Cheryl Nodar, who signed on as a tour guide 10 years ago and now manages the farm, is used to the rhythms of the place, the calm springs and crazy autumns. She also is accustomed to the unasked-for tradition: continual rumors that the place she loves will be sold.

Neighbors can't help worrying that the verdant 59 acres will one day sprout houses.

It is prime real estate. Large tracts of undeveloped land are scarce in eastern Howard County. Developers call regularly to inquire about the farm and its future - and they've inquired more frequently since owner Tom Owens moved into a nursing home last year.

`Would be a big loss'

But when developers stop by, Nodar tells them firmly: "We're running the Cider Mill Farm."

"I'm sure it's tempting to the family - the offers are phenomenal," she said, standing near the farm store on a crisp, sunny day. "I just think it would be a big loss to Howard County to not have this place."

Earlier that morning, children from three preschools jumped out of buses and cars to start their tours with a look at the chickens.

"Who's the rooster?" asked tour guide Cathy Bayne.

"The daddy!" chorused her group.

Bayne caught the bird in her arms and asked a question that needed no answer: "Would you each like to pet him?"

The children from Christ Memorial Nursery School in Columbia felt the gray feathers and touched the claws gingerly. Some jumped back when the rooster let out a cock-a-doodle-doo. Others imitated it with gusto.

They looked at turkeys, pigs, ducks, sheep, donkeys, ponies and even a peacock. Then they met the farm's cow on loan, a Jersey from Westminster that doesn't mind being milked by little hands.

"The kids are loving it," said Raven Taylor of Baltimore, who visited with her 3-year-old son's preschool class from Redeemer Child Care Center.

High-traffic area

Owning a farm in a heavily developed area has its benefits, said Caragh Fitzgerald, a county-based agriculture and natural resources educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension. Customers, she noted, are close by.

"Cider Mill's an interesting place," she said. "It doesn't really fit in with the idea that we all have of the eastern part of the county."

Traveling to the farm isn't the rural adventure that some might prefer, but "when you're on the property, you do feel you're in the country," Fitzgerald said.

Nodar thinks people, especially little ones, need to visit farms once in a while.

"For many kids, that's the best way to remember it: to see it," she said. "I just think it's a wonderful way to educate children."

For Nodar, who had always wanted to be a veterinarian, this is the perfect job. She breeds goats, works the cider press, cares for ducklings - and, when the farm opens for the season, hangs the signs with a feeling of satisfaction. They're proof that the rumors of development remain untrue.

"I love this place," Nodar said. "I can't imagine life without the Cider Mill Farm."

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