Howard agritourism again could take a hit

Farmers who depend on visitors wary about an Iraq war, terrorists

March 14, 2003|By Jessica Valdez | Jessica Valdez,SUN STAFF

As schools repeatedly canceled farm visits last fall to evade the snipers, pumpkins rotted in empty farm fields and Central Maryland farmers dependent on agritourism lost as much as 80 percent of their annual revenue.

"They took a pretty hard hit last fall," said Susan duPont, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "I think they may well be on edge about it."

Indeed, farmers are speculating on how a likely conflict with Iraq and pervasive fear of terrorist strikes would affect agri- tourism in the coming season, particularly considering the public's heightened sense of caution.

"You already see people duct-taping themselves in their houses," said Cheryl Nodar of Sharp's at Waterford Farm, a western Howard County operation that specializes in agri- tourism.

Potential bright spot

But Linda Brown, owner of Triadelphia Farms, which markets to tourists, predicted the growing fear of terrorism might push tourists into the country as they seek to escape possible terrorist targets.

"People would rather do something away from the streets," Brown said. "It's not likely that a terrorist will come to a farm; they're going to target large things."

"Washington is such a big tourist destination, but it's also one of the biggest threats," said duPont. "What we saw after Sept. 11 was an increase in agritourism because people wanted to do things a little closer to home."

The sniper scare pummeled area agritourism because it was a localized incident, duPont said, adding that she does not foresee any terrorism-caused decrease in agritourism unless an incident directly affects Howard County.

Anti-terrorism concerns

Bob Tjaden, assistant director of agriculture and natural resources programs for Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland, said there are anti-terrorism concerns on farms, but not the kind likely to inhibit tourism.

One worry involves fertilizer, said Tjaden. Nitrogen-based fertilizer, which is sometimes stored in bulk on farms, can be mixed with diesel fuel to produce a powerful bomb, like the one used in 1995 at the Oklahoma City federal building.

"We've just put out newsletters that farms need to be careful making sure all their fertilizers are locked and accounted for," he said.

Tjaden said visitors must walk through disinfectant before they can see livestock and many farms.

Getting help

The Maryland Department of Agriculture is working with Maryland Cooperative Extension Service to help farmers deal with biosecurity concerns, said duPont.

"We're working with the agricultural community, encouraging them and informing them about safety steps they can take to protect themselves from any introduction of diseases or any possible event," she said. "We are also encouraging them to review security plans, know who's where and report any suspicious activity."

While many of the biosecurity recommendations do not apply to agritourism farms, duPont highlighted a few points that are crucial in managing a farm open to visitors.

She said agritourism farmers should have a 24-hour emergency contact list, should know at all times who is on their farm and should restrict visitors to a single point of entry.

`Common sense'

"They're really common-sense types of things, and they're very parallel with things people do at their home," said du Pont.

She acknowledged that it can be more difficult for agritourism farms to monitor visitors or limit access.

"With agritourism, it's a Catch-22 situation," she said. "We want people to visit farms, but there are some risks."

Nodar, like many area agritourism farmers, remains unconcerned about a terror alert, since any negative impact would depend on a local event.

"I don't [think] the public has anything to fear by coming to a farm," said duPont.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.