Agro-tourism plows new fertile fields


When Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge closed in March, making way for a development of 94 homes, some saw the demise of this favored destination of Howard schoolchildren as further evidence of the decline of family-owned farms in the county.

But this weekend's opening of a likely replacement - Clark's Elioak Farm on Route 108 in Ellicott City - shows how Howard farmers are continuing to innovate to keep agriculture thriving.

They are adding tourist-friendly attractions such as hayrides, petting farms and corn mazes to keep their farms profitable.

Don Vandrey, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the state does not keep statistics on the number of farms involved in agro-tourism. But, he said: "We know that it's growing rapidly. It's profitable. It also increases awareness of the importance of farming. It's growing in importance for the economic health of agriculture."

Clark's Elioak Farm is a working farm of 548 acres, home to beef cattle and a flock of sheep. The Clarks grow feed grain, vegetables, sunflowers, gourds and pumpkins.

The family has run a produce stand on the property for 20 years.

The new operation includes a petting farm, hayrides to the pumpkin patch, a farm store and weekend demonstrations of farming activities such as sheep shearing and herding, and blacksmithing.

Earl Catterton of Ellicott City visited the farm yesterday with his wife, Kim Sargent, and 4-year-old daughter, Severin. Severin lingered in the petting zoo, feeding the goats and petting the rabbits.

Sargent said that Severin and her classmates from St. John's Parish Day School were disappointed when their field trip to Cider Mill was canceled in the spring because of the facility's abrupt closing.

"We just hope nothing ever happens to this land," Catterton said. "There's too much development. Let it stay green."

The Clark farm is protected from residential development through its participation in the county's farmland preservation program.

Martha Clark - who owns the farm with her father, former state Sen. James Clark Jr., and brother, Jamie Clark - said her family has farmed in Howard County since their ancestors arrived here in 1791.

She said that the closing of Cider Mill farm motivated her family to add activities that would attract school tours and families who want a taste of farm life.

Martha Clark described the closing of Cider Mill as a terrible loss. "People went there year after year," she said. "They had a wonderful program there. We're hoping to offer some of the same things that they were able to provide there."

"It's really just an extension of our farming operation," Martha Clark said.

"We're very lucky and happy to have this opportunity to invite people onto the farm and see some animals and get a feel for what it's like to have a farm in the middle of suburbia."

Last year, the Clarks began offering hayrides on their farm.

"Each year we add a little bit more," Martha Clark said. 'This year we decided there was a need for a petting farm and a pumpkin patch in this part of the county."

Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist with Howard County's Economic Development Authority, said that "there is a tremendous market base in our region for these types of activities.

"It's a wonderful connection back to our rural roots. What we find with many of the agro-tourism activities is that it helps to keep the rural tradition alive. People connect with that."

Clark's Elioak Farm, located at 10500 Route 108, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week through next month. The farm will reopen to the public in the spring.

Information: 410-465-8858.

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