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Howard County farms look to stay viable amid coronavirus pandemic

A sure sign of spring in Howard County is the controlled chaos that unfolds at Clark’s Elioak Farm on Easter weekend.

Bleating baby animals get their fill of being petted as more than 1,500 children are set loose at carefully choreographed intervals to gleefully scoop up colorful plastic eggs with baskets in hand.

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Not this year.

The Ellicott City mainstay off Clarksville Pike normally opens its petting farm and Enchanted Forest attractions to the public April 1 and has opened earlier in years when Easter falls in March.

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With Gov. Larry Hogan’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and a stringent stay-at-home order issued March 30 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the farm has postponed opening day until further notice.

Egg hunts are far from the only pandemic-related losses for Howard County farms that have cultivated a dual identity as agricultural and agritourism operations.

While farming is considered an essential business by the state government during the coronavirus outbreak, agritourism is not.

With Maryland public schools closed through April 24 — and the looming possibility that closure may be extended — multiple Howard County farms are canceling field trips and postponing other group activities.

During the pandemic, the emphasis on buying local may be more important than ever to farmers who are losing agritourism business as strict regulations are put in place, said Kathy Johnson, director of agricultural business development at the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Farms and farm stands are among the 11 food and agricultural sector businesses permitted to remain open in the governor’s amended emergency order.

“You can shop with your eyes at a farmers market or on-farm store, and the farmer will bag [your selections] for you,” Johnson said.

Six weekly farmers markets across the county are scheduled to begin opening May 6 on a staggered schedule, though current plans may have to be reevaluated to comply with government guidelines as that date draws nearer, she said.

Opening dates for markets located in parking lots of county library branches remain tentative since the county library system is closed until further notice, Johnson said. These include sites at the Miller Branch in Ellicott City and the East Columbia Branch.

Markets are also planned for Clarksville Commons, Maple Lawn, historic Ellicott City and Oakland Mills Village Center. A schedule with opening and closing dates will be updated as needed at hocofarms.com.

Roadside stands, pick-your-own farms and farms selling produce, meats and dairy products are also listed on the website.

“Just know that farmers are still doing their daily chores and raising food for you while taking all precautions” during the pandemic, Johnson said.

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Martha Clark and her daughter Nora Crist will continue to sell grass-fed beef and pastured pork at the Clark’s Elioak Farm Castle Store as they did throughout the winter.

Fresh kale and cabbage grown in their high tunnel greenhouse are also for sale at the store, which is open Thursdays and Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. and by appointment. More fresh produce will be added as the growing season progresses.

The pair also have a few tricks up their sleeves to fill the gap for visitors until their farm can safely reopen and resume educational tours, birthday parties and other activities.

Youth can view a gallery of farm animal photos online and watch videos of “Farmer Martha” as she does chores around the farm, such as painting the Three Bears’ House of Goldilocks fame. Links to these features are available on the farm’s Facebook, Instagram and Vimeo pages.

Once the farm is allowed to reopen, Clark is weighing the possibility of selling timed tickets online that would allot visitors a specific two-hour slot and honor social distancing guidelines if they’re still required, she said.

Tom Cunningham, owner of Mary’s Land Farm on Sheppard Lane in Ellicott City, said his farm has postponed educational activities, tours, cooking classes and other group events for an indefinite period, but his on-farm store remains open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Sunday.

“Farmers look at producing food as a ministry,” Cunningham said, adding that this innate perspective can make the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic tough to accept.

People should make an extra effort to eat healthy foods grown by local farmers to stay strong and avoid falling victim to the virus, he said.

“Everyone should be watching their diets [more closely] during the pandemic, especially foods high in sodium or sugar,” he advised.

While Cunningham is taking the new normal one day at a time, he said it’s in his nature to remain optimistic.

“My hope is the sun blasts through the virus so people can come out” for activities at local farms, he said.

The Roving Radish, an initiative of the Howard County Office on Community Sustainability since 2014, will once again sell seasonal meal kits, which are assembled from local farms’ poultry, meats and produce.

The kits, which come in standard and vegetarian options, include ingredients and recipes to make two dinners for a family of four. They are available for $38 and to income-eligible consumers for the subsidized price of $18, said James Zoller, the county’s agricultural coordinator.

“We’re anticipating we’ll have more clients” due to the pandemic, Zoller said, noting a seasonal subscription isn’t required and people can order week-to-week from online menus. “We served 300 kits last year, and we’re projecting sales of 420 kits this year.”

Staff will take added precautions by establishing a 6-foot buffer between themselves and customers during pickup.

“We will place the order on the counter and then step back and allow the client to pick it up,” he said, noting it requires more staff to carry out this protocol.

With teleworking on the upswing and the stay-at-home order in place, Zoller is hopeful that family discussions on the importance of serving fresh foods and balanced nutritional meals might become more commonplace.

“There’s the potential now that people will have more time to teach kids to cook,” he said.

Lynn Moore, co-owner of Larriland Farm in Woodbine, said they’ve been “trying to come up with a way to open in May while keeping people 6 feet apart and as safe as we can.”

With four fields of pick-your-own strawberries, there’s plenty of space to spread out on the farm, she said.

Moore said the farm had already set up its long rows of strawberry plants on 3-foot centers and created 50-foot breaks in each row, since that’s the average length of plants one customer can pick. Staff plan to place customers in every other row to maintain social distancing guidelines.

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Peach trees, which workers are currently pruning, “are in full bloom and running three weeks early,” thanks to the mild winter, she said, adding that apple trees also seem to be ahead of schedule.

“Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is so important that we feel an obligation to make this [social distancing system] work,” Moore said.

Over the winter, Clark filled 1,700 goodie bags to hand out to kids on Easter weekend, and she is determined to distribute them.

“We can still have egg hunts in the summer and have fun doing everything differently in 2020,” Clark said.

“We are also exploring a series of after-hours adult events with wine and cheese and baby goats. We think everyone will need a respite from ‘cabin fever’ whenever we are able to get out and about again.”

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