Scaring up profit

Farmers branch out their businesses with vineyards, ice cream and haunted hayrides

October 13, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

When Patrick Barberry left his family's Churchville farm to study business at college, he fully intended to bring home ideas to make the operation more profitable.

A year after graduating from Salisbury University, the 23-year-old farmer took a look at Aldino Farms' 800-acre sod operation and saw potential. He replaced a small portion of the grassy fields with an entertainment attraction built around a seasonal theme. He carved out a 6-acre corn maze, cultivated a thriving pumpkin patch and filled a haunted hayride with live action.

Since it opened last month, "Legends of the Fog" has attracted more than 1,200 visitors to the farm.

"I thought I would diversify a bit and try something new," he said.

Barberry and his father, Mike, are among a growing number of family farmers who are attempting to boost profits and compete against larger operations by finding new streams of revenue. Ventures such as themed attractions, vineyards and homemade ice cream are becoming more common on farms across the state. Even roadside produce stands are offering more than fruits and vegetables, as some include straw mazes, hayrides and treks through pumpkin patches - dubbed "agri-tourism."

"This is happening everywhere, but especially in Maryland where there are smaller farms," said Julie Oberg, a spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department. "The drought this year especially brought home the need to diversify."

Depressed prices have led farmers to move in different directions, said Dave Myers, University of Maryland extension agent in Anne Arundel County.

"It is hard for a single-farm family to make it their sole employment," Myers said. "But it is also hard for many farmers to make the transition to marketing. Many of them are not trained for it. For any new business venture, there needs to be a good plan."

Bonita Farms in Havre de Grace, home to champion thoroughbred stallions for decades, has struggled with the downturn in racing. The family has relinquished some pasture land for a grape vineyard and Christmas tree crop.

"You have to diversify and react to the market," said Bonita Farms owner Billy Boniface, who is also Harford County Council president. "Even crop farmers cannot put everything in corn. All of us are trying to find a niche market. Pumpkins are so popular, I may put those in next spring."

In his introductory farming courses, Myers stresses production and marketing.

"You have to know what you will do with all those bushels you have raised," he said. "Good marketers watch trends and know when they subside. The craze for squash can shut off overnight, and you have to know what the next craze is. What to plant is a constant gamble."

At Larriland Farms in Woodbine, the orchards and fields are pick-your-own.

"I guess we have taken farm diversity all the way," said Lynn Moore, president of the business that began with an acre of strawberries in 1973 and now includes 125 acres of produce. "Here you can pick edible food and eat it right here."

Broom's Bloom in Bel Air opened an ice cream store on their dairy farm three years ago and then added gourmet cheese, lamb and light lunch fare.

"Farms are struggling to find ways to stay in business," said Kate Dallam, who runs Broom's Bloom with her husband, Dave. "If you are struggling to pay bills with no disposable income, it won't work. As long as you can make a little money, farming can be blissful."

Cindi Umbarger, Kate's sister-in-law, has put together a traveling grocery store with fresh products grown on the family's Woolsey Farm and on neighboring lands. Every Saturday, she hauls meats, cheeses, eggs and honey from Churchville to the Waverly Market in Baltimore.

"There has been a huge increase in customers who want to eat local and know where their food has come from," Umbarger said. "I take three freezers full to Baltimore and come home empty."

Local governments are helping farmers in the diversification effort. Harford County Council member Chad Shrodes has established the Ag Viability Task Force to explore ways to assist farmers in marketing their wares.

"The goal is to have entire sections in groceries devoted to local products," Shrodes said.

Agri-tourism is another venture for farmers.

The Barberrys set their sites on a haunted Halloween this year. The 800-acre farm, located down a tree-lined road a few miles from Interstate 95, offers a prime setting for unearthly entertainment.

"Dad is my boss, but he trusts my judgment and listens to my ideas, especially about technology and streamlining," Patrick Barberry said. "I just put together a marketing strategy."

Mike Barberry said, "Patrick said we needed to expand, and that's what this is about."

A portion of the proceeds goes to The Y of Central Maryland, which has lent organizational and promotional support and volunteers.

"The Y is great at events planning," Mike Barberry said. "We used their expertise with our farm and our workmanship."

The show has grown from his son's business plan into a true community effort, Mike Barberry said.

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