You've heard of the gentleman farmer? Steve Weber might be better described as an entertainment farmer.
On a clear and sunny October morning, the co-proprietor of Weber's Cider Mill Farm in the Carney area of Baltimore County puts a foot up on a picnic table and leans on his knee, watching a half-dozen pre-school kids totter past. Each is clutching an orange gourd happily to his or her chest -- in some cases, a load almost too big to carry.
"I think you could call this entertainment farming. You see, this 100 tons of pumpkins we'll sell really has nothing at all to do with eating food," Mr. Weber reflects. "Everyone came from farms once, and this is what used to get you through the winter . . . But this is all about fun."
And education, too, adds Jo-Ann Weber, Steve's wife and co-manager of the 14 1/2 -acre farm that sits incongruously at the end of a typical suburban street.
Mrs. Weber, a former school teacher, coordinates tours for thousands of youngsters who visit Weber's Farm on school and day-care center trips. They come to see the real thing after their classroom units learn about the growing of apples, pumpkins and other produce.
Weber's Farm is one of more than a score of establishments in the Baltimore region that could be called growth industries -- farms or farmer's markets that offer tours, pick-it-yourself opportunities or other ways to reap fall's bountiful harvest.
They're especially busy this time of year, selling apples, cider, corn stalks and sheaves and, especially, the pumpkins destined for mostly decorative uses. (See accompanying list.)
"You know, pumpkins weren't as hip as they are today. Halloween is a whole lot more fun now than it used to be," muses Mr. Weber.
"Even just 10 years ago it was less popular, it seems," adds Mrs. Weber. She notes the farm's traditional Pumpkinland area -- it features an inflated Jack Frost loafing on a pyramid of pumpkins -- and the tours for youngsters were something added to the operation in the mid-1970s, after she and Steve married.
Harvest fun at Weber's now includes lessons in making scarecrows (for $12.50 you take the life-size product home with you) and a "Straw Crawl," in which children crawl through a maze made of hay bales (for a $1 fee). Hours for these activities are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, but the farm is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
The Weber's Farm operation reaches back to Steve's grandfather, Jacob Weber, who bought 100 acres in 1904 to grow crops to sell in nearby Baltimore and its growing suburbs.
Fruits and vegetables were the mainstays, says Mr. Weber, noting, "My father [Earl Weber] was the one who made it into Weber's Cider Mill."
Steve grew up on the property and recalls delivering produce door to door in Baltimore with his father when he was a boy. Yet he says he never expected to end up running the operation.
"I had no intention of coming back to the farm," says Mr. Weber, 48, recalling his graduation from the University of Baltimore in 1971 with a business management degree.
But it happened that his father, who had seen the Carney property slowly dwindle in the face of suburban development, decided to re-locate his growing fields and purchased a 392-acre spread in Harford County.
"The county had just taken some land up over here for a middle school, but we had the idea to keep the cider mill going," says Mr. Weber.
He had met Jo-Ann through 4-H activities -- she grew up on a farm in Howard County, near Woodstock -- and they decided to continue Weber's Farm as an oasis of rurality. Now, their four children, ranging in age from 14 to 23, all have also put in their time working at the farm.
Today, from the middle of Pumpkinland, visitors look into the backyards of several tract houses. Not far away are dense garden apartments and the shopping conglomeration around Perring Parkway and Joppa Road.
"There are many people who don't think we're still here," concedes Mrs. Weber.
But on one side of the property, an orchard with 1,500 apple trees screens other subdivisions from view. A cider mill press still operates in a barn, squeezing out apple juice before the curious eyes of young visitors. And an adjacent building offers produce, jams, jellies and other "put up" items, as well as bakery goods.
In the peak fall season, says Mrs. Weber, about 80 employees work full or part time at the farm, "but in the winter we're down to just about six." About a dozen people are hired each fall and spring just to lead the tours for young people.
The apple orchard is open each fall for pick-it-yourself harvest by visitors -- although this season pretty much ended earlier this month with a disappointing crop of the red delicious variety. Mr. Weber plans to do some "top-working" of the orchard over the winter, grafting other varieties onto pruned stumps.
He says a good showing of buds this year forecasts a good harvest next year.
The apples are the only crops still grown at the Carney farm. The pumpkins are brought in from the family's Mount Pleasant Orchards in Harford County.
In October, the Webers also operate the Pumpkin Farm, a hayride, pumpkin harvest and school tour operation in Hydes, in northeastern Baltimore County. Public hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends.
"I tell you it's a great job," says Mrs. Weber. "It's just fun to demonstrate the cider mill and listen to the questions that all the children have."
"There's something about this season. It's the gathering of the bounty," says Mr. Weber.