WASHINGTON – Lynn, Guy and Femby Moore grew up watching their father struggle financially, at the mercy of wholesale prices he had no power to change.
First their father had a dairy operation on their farm in Howard County. Then he grew soybeans, grain, hay and turf. Then he switched to fruit and vegetable farming.
“No matter how hard he worked or what he did he had no control over income,” said Lynn Moore. “He wanted more freedom with what he grew.”
In 1972, the family ventured into pick-your-own with one acre of strawberries. It drew an extraordinary response.
“It was like oh-my-goodness. This is feasible. This will work,” said Lynn Moore, who now runs the Larriland Farm with her two brothers.
Their farm is one of many in the state that has added pick-your-own crops, direct-to-consumer markets and increasingly popular “agri-tainment” options like hay rides and mazes to make ends meet while many traditional farmers struggle.
“These are very astute business techniques” for farmers, who are dealing with the pressures of higher production costs, said Ginger Myers, agricultural development specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
Such farms have adapted their business to attract customers like the Whitneys of Silver Spring. The threat of rain and a biting wind did not stop the Whitney family from going apple picking at Larriland Farm on a recent Saturday.
“We come here every year,” said Marilyn Whitney, as she picked deep red empires with her daughter Colette, 10. “We look forward to it every fall.”
“They love it. I love it. That’s what fall is about,” said Marilyn Whitney.
The Whitneys were one of just a few families in the Larriland Farm orchard late in the day — an unusually small crowd considering that other, sunny weekends draw hundreds of visitors to the farm in the pumpkin and apple season.
This is the high season for most pick-your-own farms, but opportunities spread across the year — from strawberries in May to Christmas trees in December.
In the 1970s, pick-your-own farming boomed in Maryland, said Steve Weber, past president of the Maryland Direct Farm Market Association and owner of Weber’s Cider Mill Farm in Baltimore County.
Myers said pick-your-own started, in part, as a less-labor-intensive way for farmers to get ripe fruits and vegetables harvested. For customers, it was an inexpensive way to get large quantities of produce and fruits and vegetables to can or freeze.
“That doesn’t happen any more,” said Weber. At his market, he now sees many more customers who buy much smaller quantities and snatch up prepared foods as opposed to cooking at home.
The state does not gather information on this segment of the agricultural industry, although it might in the future, said State Statistician Norman Bennett. But his personal guess is that there are more now than there used to be.
Weber believes that the number of pick-your-own farms actually fell from a high of about 120 in the 1970s to about 60 in 2003. But Myers contends that Weber’s number does not include many small seasonal farms and secondary operations of larger farms, or operations like flower-cutting farms.
“My contention is that there are a lot of smaller ones out there,” said Myers. “There’s more here (in Howard County) than there were 20 years ago.”
Marilyn Whitney would agree.
She said she saw four signs for pick-your-own places driving up Georgia Avenue on the way to Larriland Farm. They were not there when she was a kid, she said, when “Butler’s Orchard was the only place to go.”
Now, there are not only more places to go but more things to do down on the farm.
At Larriland Farm, the Moores offer a tour of the Boo Barn, toddler and children’s mazes and hay rides — at prices ranging from $1.50 to $2.75 — in addition to retail items and, of course, pick-your-own fruits and vegetables.
Whereas standard farming “would barely support one income,” said Lynn Moore, Larriland makes three. She concedes that she and her brothers don’t make much, “but we’re still here and the bills are paid.”