Farm coupons crop up

Marketing: Howard County has begun offering vouchers that can be redeemed for discounts at nine local farms.

May 12, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Retailers have known for years that coupons bring in customers, but you would be hard-pressed to find farmers issuing "20 percent off" vouchers.

Until now.

Every public school kindergartner in Howard County -- all 2,875 -- received a booklet of coupons in recent weeks, redeemable at nine local farms and one cafe that buys its ingredients from farmers. The county's Economic Development Authority coordinated the effort to target families most likely to want hands-on time with animals, crops and corn mazes.

"McDonald's is selling Happy Meals to 2-year-olds. Why shouldn't we be selling strawberries to 5-year-olds?" asked Ginger Myers, an agricultural economic development specialist who won a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help pay for the project.

"It's part of re-establishing this urban-rural connection here," she said. "It's home-grown tourism."

The owners of Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg are all for that. Though 6,000 to 8,000 people stop by in December for Christmas trees, many others have no idea the farm exists, said co-owner Linda Brown.

"This is a good way for people to find us," she said.

Her two "$1 off" coupons can be used on anything the former dairy farm produces, from pick-your-own strawberries (available in late May, if the weather cooperates) to farmers' market vegetables to Halloween hayrides.

Tony Evans, who coordinates the Maryland farmers' market programs for the state Department of Agriculture, cannot think of any other countywide ag coupon books.

"Particularly in an urban setting ... it's very efficient advertising," he said. "You have so many new people coming in. This is a wonderful way to acquaint them with agriculture."

Barbara Wofford, an Ellicott City resident who has taken her children to visit farms before, was delighted when her son brought the coupon booklet home from kindergarten. As the leader of one Girl Scout troop and a helper with two others, she sees possible field trips in those pages full of ideas for family outings.

"We're always looking for activities for the girls to do," she said.

Coupon participants range from Clarkland Farms near Centennial Park -- run by former Sen. James Clark Jr. -- to Lilliput Lane petting farm in Sykesville to Heritage Bison Co. in Woodbine.

John Brigante, who owns Heritage Bison, used to work on a dairy farm. But bison are easier to handle than traditional dairy beasts, and they are unusual enough to attract tourists even without the farm's pretty 80 acres.

"I have a lot of people who come out just to look at 'em," said Brigante, who adds that he hopes the coupons boost his business.

Some farmers, well established already, signed on to the project partly as a favor to the Economic Development Authority. But they figure a thriving agricultural base helps everyone.

"We all need to stay in business so we can all stay in business," said Lynn Moore, whose family operates Larriland Farm in Woodbine. "If there's not a large enough farm community, then your suppliers leave and you can't operate."

The Moores, who grow fruit and vegetables, are convinced the best advertising is word-of-mouth. But unlike many farmers, they have issued coupons occasionally.

Evans -- who said farmers tend to be better producers than marketers -- thinks a group promotion effort makes sense, especially for businesses that sell directly to consumers. The underlying product they're offering is a day at the farm, he said, and "that's great bait."

"Activities on a farm are about as basic a function as there is -- production of food -- and people are curious about that," Evans said.

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