Anne Arundel seeks to boost agritourism

Maryland Sunrise Farms featured a ‘Peanuts’-themed corn maze, celebrating the 50th anniversary of TV-special ‘It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ in 2016. Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh believes agritourism has untapped potential as a money-maker for the county’s farms. He is pushing legislation to make it easy for farms and other agricultural businesses to offer services that will boost the county’s tourism industry.

Corn mazes, pick-your-own produce excursions, pumpkin patches and more have become seasonal traditions for many local families. Now, Anne Arundel County is looking to create a classification all of their own in the zoning code.

County Council members are considering two bills aimed at defining and boosting agritourism, the term for activities that bring visitors onto the farm.


It's an effort that's been a long time in the making. County Executive Steve Schuh's administration established a work group tasked with looking into agritourism last year, and the group's findings shaped the recently proposed code updates.

Schuh believes agritourism has untapped potential as a money-maker for the county's farms.


"We have some beautiful agricultural lands and interesting agricultural-based businesses here in the county," Schuh told the county tourism bureau's blog, Annapolis Explorer, in an interview a year ago. "It's never been viewed as a defined sector of tourism, but by looking at it in a strategic way, we can attract more visitors to the assets we have and, in so doing, help owners of agricultural-based businesses."

Agritourism has been cropping up statewide as a focus.

Gov. Larry Hogan's Commission for Agriculture first proposed a definition for agritourism in 2015, and the University of Maryland Extension, an arm of the state college, named the practice as one of the state's "trending enterprises," alongside other growing industries such as craft breweries, organic farming and honey production.

"In many Northeast states," the extension notes on its website, "tourism is the first or second revenue-generating source and agricultural operations are in the top ten. The economic impacts of blending tourism and agriculture have significant potential."

From field trips to farm museums, the scope of activities that might be defined as agritourism is broad. The county's proposed definition, part of Council Bill 25-17, would include fishing, wildlife study, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, harvest festivals, hayrides, pick-your-own operations, farm tours, farm-to-table meals, classes and other agriculture-related events under the umbrella.

The key, according to the bill, is that an activity deemed "agritourism" would have to be a supplement to the primary function of a farm: growing crops or raising livestock.

Schuh's lobbyist Bernie Marczyk said the goal is to "allow farm owners to own additional businesses that are an accessory" by making it easier for farms to launch agritourism activities without having to jump through hoops for approval.

The work group also recommended declaring Anne Arundel an "agriculture business friendly" county, hiring new staff to support farmers in their pursuits and offering a tax break to agritourism businesses.


The latter proposal led to Council Bill 28-17, which would exempt agritourism enterprises from the admissions & amusement tax the county imposes on most entertainment, such as concerts, skate rentals, driving ranges and athletic events.

The fee brings in approximately $8 million to $10 million for the county a year, but County Auditor Jodee Dickinson said the contribution of agritourism proceeds is small — less than $15,000 a year, in her estimation.

The legislation, particularly the bill proposing changes to the zoning code, has faced concerns from the farming community and others who live in rural areas.

Some farmers said a provision subjecting agricultural buildings to previously inapplicable zoning regulations would make it harder to do business. Others, including members of the work group, said the bill's recommendations didn't incorporate enough public input.

In response, Schuh's administration submitted a series of amendments easing some of the proposed zoning restrictions and adding a requirement that buildings to be used for agritourism pass a fire inspection if they plan to accommodate more than 50 people at once.

Administration officials say they plan to submit at least one more amendment to the bill before it gets a final vote.


The council will take up the bill at its next meeting, scheduled for June 5.