Fear depletes business of rural farm fall fests

Schools cancel field trips to pumpkin patches

Agri-tourism hurt by shootings

October 12, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Sandy Alexander | Jamie Smith Hopkins and Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

The sniper hasn't fired a shot in Howard County, but farms there and in other suburban areas south of Baltimore are taking a hit.

"Agri-tourism" operations that rely on school groups to visit their animals, pumpkin patches and corn mazes have had the rug pulled out from under them at what should be their busiest time of year - school after school has canceled.

Sharp's at Waterford Farm is seeing 60 percent to 70 percent fewer groups. Clark's Elioak Farm should have had 250 kids in yesterday and had none. Triadelphia Lake View Farm got last-minute regrets from everyone scheduled this week.

The schools in Howard and many points south have been in lockdown, with field trips banned, as concerns about providing targets for a sniper are limiting lots of outdoor activities.

Yesterday, Anne Arundel County canceled recreational soccer, football and hockey games through the weekend and Arundel schools did the same with the exception of several homecoming football games. Baltimore has suspended all of its outdoor youth activities since Monday and will continue the ban through the weekend.

In Howard County, recreation officials discreetly decided that days of heavy rain had been too much for heavily used fields and called off this weekend's games because of the weather. The county's high school teams will be playing, as will recreational and school teams in Carroll and Harford counties.

Visits are called off

Student trips to the Baltimore-Washington area were called off by school administrators from Philadelphia's suburbs to North Carolina. And other events, including a girls soccer tournament expected to attract more than 300 teams, were canceled because of the shootings.

For farmers dependent on agri-tourism, the losses are painful.

"I could easily see it becoming the worst October we've ever had," said Fenby Moore, vice president of Larriland Farm, just outside Lisbon in Howard County. "Our tour business - so far this [month], we've lost over half of 'em."

Many businesses have suffered from the ever-widening ripples of fear. But it's terrible timing for tourism-dependent farms, which can see most of their customers in this month alone and have spent weeks preparing.

"This is their prime time for these school tours," said Tony Evans, a state Department of Agriculture spokesman.

The farmers are reluctant to complain.

"I don't want to de-emphasize the fact that the major tragedy is that people are getting shot," said Chuck Sharp, whose Sharp's at Waterford Farm is in the Glenwood area. "The issues are bigger than my little pumpkin patch. ... I'm on edge; it's real, and it's close."

"I certainly can't blame the schools for canceling," Moore said. "I tell you, people are going to be afraid to go out of their houses pretty soon if this keeps up."

Other agri-tourism places in the Baltimore area don't seem to be affected as badly - a little distance from the shootings goes a long way - but they, too, are seeing a drop.

James Schillinger, owner of Papa John's Farm in Severn, said he lost a third of his business this week after school groups canceled. Parents normally tag along and spend money at his farm stand.

Pumpkins paid for

Schools have been inquiring about the cost of canceling trips to ROHA Farms in Hydes. Ron Chason, who owns the farm with his wife, Hanne, said the couple would like to waive all charges but don't know whether they can.

To prepare for the season, they bought thousands of dollars worth of pumpkins to supplement their drought-afflicted crop.

"We paid twice for pumpkins and now we have no clientele," said Hanne Chason. "It is a major impact."

But Baugher's Farm in Westminster had only one school group cancel, and that was on the first day that the shootings were in the news.

"We had a very big weekend last weekend," said Kay Ripley, who works as a bookkeeper on her family's farm.

The impact has also been small at Butler's Orchard in Germantown - closer to the shootings, but less dependent on school groups.

For the affected Howard County farms, the long-overdue rain hasn't helped: School groups that could have come didn't. But of the 1,000 people who should have been at the Sharps' farm yesterday (none was), about 75 percent bowed out because of the sniper, said co-owner Denise Sharp.

Normally, "people are scattered all up here," she said, standing in a pumpkin patch full of pumpkins going to waste. "It's like doing a play and then having the play canceled."

Chuck Sharp is planning to sell some crops on the wholesale market to salvage what he can. "I have plenty of 'em," he said.

Extend the season

Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City is extending its season into November so the groups that canceled can reschedule, and Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg has offered to deliver part of the experience - pumpkins and straw - to any school that can't let kids outside.

"Christmas trees are our biggest time of year, but this is a very big part of our income," said Linda Brown, co-owner of Triadelphia Lake View Farm. "October helps us get through the winter."

Schools are also eager for a return to normal.

Kindergartners from Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring arrived at the Sharps' farm last week just as the news first hit that a serial killer was on the loose. They never got off the bus.

Principal Jody Leleck is hopeful that her students will get to pet the goats soon - not just admire them through the windows.

"We're going to try it again next week," she said.

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