ELLICOTT CITY – Clark’s Elioak Farm has found a way to stabilize the ups and downs of traditional farming.
“Farming’s tough, you know,” said Martha Clark, whose father owns the Howard County farm, “. . . between the weather and the commodity prices, you never know in a given year if you’re going to make any money or not.”
And so the Clarks have turned 20 acres of their 540-acre farm into a high-draw petting zoo, featuring alpacas, emus, hay rides and pumpkin picking. They are part of a growing guild of farmers throughout the state who, over the past few years, have sought to supplement their income through agritourism.
Though agriculture officials have not statistically tracked the rise of this field, many say it is clearly expanding.
“On a sunny day on an October weekend, we might have a couple thousand people here a day,” said Clark, who charges an entrance fee of a few dollars a head.
She and other farmers looking to diversify have each found their own niche: Some try corn mazes, some try pick-your-own produce in addition to their standard harvest.
“There are just a number of attractions that are really appealing to the consumer public, particularly the urban areas,” said Lewis Riley, Maryland’s secretary of agriculture.
Agritourism rose from the popularity and profitability of long-standing farm markets, he said, and has proven innovative and successful in the past few years. The Clark’s farm, for one, is in its third year of agritourism and recently built a gift shop, selling items like preserves and horse figurines at the entrance.
“It’s the greatest advertising in the world,” said Riley, who added that farm marketing has received a boost in nearly 10 counties with the appointment of agricultural specialists working in economic development.
Frederick, one of the highest-producing agricultural counties in the state, has begun helping farmers advertise their attractions through the county’s Virtual Farmers’ Market Web site and a countywide gala.
The annual “Family Festival at the Farm,” which features 11 farms holding various activities, is expected to draw more than 20,000 visitors Oct. 16-17.
Colby Ferguson, business development specialist for agriculture in the county, said this projection has jumped drastically from the 5,000 who attended its debut two years ago.
“(Tourism) is growing very, very fast,” said Ferguson. In Maryland in particular, the proximity of farms to each other heightens the draw.
During the October festival, said Ferguson, a family could easily hit Lilypons Water Gardens for bird watching, Hedgeapple Farm for Black Angus tours and Mayne’s Tree Farm for pumpkin picking all in one day.
The financial benefit, Ferguson added, is tremendous. “You can take a 40-acre field that would normally produce $350 to $400 an acre . . . and turn it into an additional, maybe as much as $2,000 to $3,000 an acre . . . that’s a pretty good turn-around on 40 acres.”
Alice Bender, who with her husband Bob runs Cove-Run Farms in Garrett County, said the second income from tourism is nearly a necessity to keep their dairy farm running.
Every August for the past four years, they have grown 170 acres of corn to transform into a corn maze through October. They charge $4-$6 per person, and see about 4,500 people come through the maze per year. Afterward, they store the corn in a silo to feed their cattle.
Because milk prices have been so low, she said, that extra money has helped them stay afloat. Bender said they often see families from the Baltimore-Washington area not familiar with Maryland farming.
“We’ve had families get to watch (calves) be born, and to some people this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she said.
“One of the things that is missing, especially in the metro area, is a connection with the land,” said Cheryl DeBerry, agriculture marketing specialist for economic development in Garrett County. Trying to account for the appeal of day treks out to produce picks and field tours, she added, “Folks are really looking for a natural experience.”