Local farmers want to plant a seed in the minds of city and suburban dwellers. You don't have to drive far to experience rolling fields, orchards of crisp apples, patches of bulging orange pumpkins and other wonders of fall.
Farmers, county agencies and agriculture groups have organized the nine-day Howard County Farm-City Celebration, which will start Saturday, to highlight farms in the county and what they provide. Several locations will offer farm tours, fall activities such as hayrides and corn mazes, farmers' markets, demonstrations of antique farm machinery and other events.
"Agriculture is still an important part of the Howard County economy, but it is not a very visible part of the Howard County economy anymore," said Martha Clark, owner of Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City and chairwoman of the Farm-City Celebration Council.
"I think it's important for people to realize when they drive past some open land it's not just a field ... that is waiting to be developed. It actually is an integral part of the Howard County economy. That land is producing products and services."
According to the Howard County Economic Development Authority, farming is one of the top five county industries with annual sales of more than $200 million.
A survey last year by the authority found that more and more of the county's farms are small and looking at direct-marketing strategies to make more on each sale.
In the survey, 25 percent of respondents were using farm stands to sell directly to customers, 23 percent were using pick-your-own operations and 18 percent were using agritourism, which includes activities like hayrides, corn mazes and petting farms.
"I think that [farmers] like to celebrate their farm heritage here," said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism Inc. "They are looking for new customers or preserving their way of life by opening their doors to the public."
Bonacci said there is great potential for selling the farm experience to people in surrounding urban areas, particularly as more people express an interest in natural products, fresh food and organic eating.
"You can escape all that hustle and bustle out on a farm, picking your own apples ... but you are within an hour's drive from the two cities [Baltimore and Washington]," she said.
Several Farm-City participants already use agritourism and pick-your-own attractions but hope to draw more visitors for fall activities and new events.
Clark's Elioak Farm, a family-oriented petting farm, will be the site of the farm-city celebration kickoff at 10 a.m. Saturday. This weekend, the farm will offer sheepdog and falconry demonstrations in addition to the regular pony rides, hayrides and animal attractions. On Sept. 25 and 26, the farm will host a re-enacted Civil War encampment.
Sharp's at Waterford Farm near Brookeville starts its fall season this weekend with hayrides, a corn maze, pumpkin picking and other activities. It will also hold the Howard County-Iron Bridge Fox Chase on Sept. 25.
Larriland Farm in Woodbine and Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg offer pick-your-own operations and farm stores. They will have apples, pumpkins and other fall crops available.
Maple Lawn Farm in Fulton does not offer agritourism activities. But co-owner Judy Iager said it welcomes people who are interested in farm life to look around at their dairy, grain and turkey operations. The farm offers tours by appointment.
The farm-city week "probably will bring a lot of people in that have been curious," Iager said. "What they are seeing is a working farm."
The festivities also will include events at local libraries, workshops and school visits to Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock. Mount Pleasant also will be the site of the Antique Farm Machinery Club's Farm Heritage Days on Sept. 25 and 26.
Saturday will be the last day of the farmers' market at the Glenwood Branch Library, and organizers plan to make it a festive one with a raffle, apple-tasting, balloons and treats.
"As it turned out, it's been really good," said market manager R.J. Caulder of the Saturday market's first three-month run. "We had a nice variety of vendors."
Caulder, who sells homemade soaps, jams, cut flowers and herbs, recruited other vendors who offered bread, smoked fish and barbecue sandwiches in addition to the traditional fruits and vegetables.
The Tuesday market at Mount Pisgah AME Church in Columbia and the Thursday market at the east Columbia library also will feature fall festivities. The Tuesday market ends Oct. 28, and the Thursday market ends Nov. 18.
Clark said farms are productive year-round, but that fall tends to bring out visitors. "What better time to focus on what the farms in the county have to offer than this time of year, when we're harvesting the fruits of our labor," she said.
Some activities require registration or fees. Information: www.farmheritage.org or 410-313-6524.