Farms embrace autumn visitors

Agribusiness: After last year's drought and a wet spring, local farmers hope to make a profit from fall hayrides, cider mills and pumpkin patches.

October 12, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Something about the arrival of fall's cool weather and colorful leaves seems to inspire people to pick crunchy red apples, choose perfect bulbous orange pumpkins and ride around the countryside in a wagon full of prickly hay.

More than a dozen Central Maryland farms are happy to oblige the public's yearning for traditional harvest activities, with some operations offering extras such as animals, scarecrow-making and straw and corn mazes.

Such agritourism businesses rely on autumn inspiration to fuel the most profitable time of the year - even more so this year after sniper attacks discouraged customers last fall and wet weather interfered with farming this summer. "October is very, very big for cider mills and pumpkin farms," said Steve Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

Usually the market on his own Cider Mill Farm near Carney is fairly quiet. But, he said, as he begins to offer fall attractions "six weeks before Halloween, it's a zoo. ... It's really a phenomenon. During the week, it's just packed."

"This is the time of year ... that can help pay the bills for the rest of the season," said Judy Harlan, co-owner of Belvedere Farm in Fallston. "We have to work toward it all summer long."

She added, "It lasts for a relatively short time, but we do find it's a time people's spirits are a little bit higher."

This year, farmers' spirits - and bank accounts - could use a strong season after a difficult 18 months.

In summer 2002, a drought ruined corn, pumpkins, vegetables and other crops. Then, in fall 2002, a series of sniper attacks forced hundreds of school groups to cancel their farm trips in Central Maryland and kept families indoors on weekends.

Farms in Howard and Montgomery counties, among others, "just got hammered," Weber said.

"Last fall, we didn't make any money," said Denise Sharp, co-owner of Sharp's at Waterford Farm in Brookville. Her operation offers scheduled tours for camp groups in the summer and opens its greenhouses in the spring, but focuses its public activities around the fall.

"It's pretty much 75 percent of the year, what happens in the month of October," she said.

Farmers also faced a cold, wet spring and a summer full of record rains, cutting attendance at farms that focus heavily on agritourism.

"The spring was not a good season because it rained almost every weekend," said Martha Clark, who oversees the petting farm, store, tours and pony rides at Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City.

So far, this month has been much improved, she said. "It's been an awful lot of fun to see what we can do when everything has cooperated."

Summer rain also interfered with crops some farms raise in addition to their public events.

"I can see why people are on edge," Weber said. Peaches, strawberries and corn were in good shape in many parts of Maryland, but for farms that focus on vegetables, "It has been a tough year. ... The fall is going to be what saves [them]."

"We needed something to go right for us," said Linda Brown, who owns Triadelphia Lake View Farms in Glenelg with her husband, Jim. The two focus on direct marketing at their farm and at farmers' markets and offer a variety of fall activities.

Deer wiped out a few acres of pumpkins this year, but another patch the couple protected came out great, Linda Brown said. Their corn maze also survived Tropical Storm Isabel with little damage.

She said, "I think we're going to have a good fall."

"We've had our fingers crossed the weather will cooperate and pull us out of that summer slump that we had because of the weather," Harlan said.

Some pumpkin crops were slim, with rainy mornings interfering with bees that pollinate the plants and damp conditions encouraging mold. But, Harlan said, "[Having] something this year is better than nothing last year" because of the drought. "We're thankful for that."

Agritourism and other forms of direct marketing such as farm stands and pick-your-own operations have become more prevalent in Central Maryland, state experts say. Close to urban areas, where land is expensive and a ready audience is available, direct marketing can mean a much higher profit margin.

"We set our own prices in niche markets," Weber said.

According to a recent survey by the Howard County Economic Development Authority, 18 percent of respondents in the county use agritourism as a marketing method. Twenty-three percent offer pick-your-own activities, and 25 percent have a farm stand.

The study also found more than 35 percent of respondents in the county plan to expand their agritourism activities.

Fall activities in particular have proven to be a good choice, said Allan Baugher, who owns Baugher's Orchard in Westminster. "You do get to charge retail price for your product, making a few profits on it, he said.

And it is a good time for the customers. "People are looking for something to do, and they can do it as a family unit," Baugher said. "A lot of people, their roots go back to when they used to be on a farm or had relatives on a farm. ... It's endearing for a lot of people."

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