When Helen Tuel left her job as a dental hygienist in the early 1980s, she decided to become a farmer. Instead of raising livestock or growing crops, she decided to try a now-popular alternative called agritourism.
Tuel and her husband founded the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center, a 55-acre facility in Glenwood that provides horse-riding lessons to children and adults who have disabilities and helps children develop basic life skills.
Agritourism -- in which people visit farms for recreation or education -- has proved to be an attractive option for some farmers. Activities can range from pick-your-own crops to hayrides.
Tuel established the riding center, which is a registered public charity in Maryland, to "bring a bright spot to the children's lives and provide a sport that's often not provided to them. We also want to provide therapy in a naturalistic surrounding."
Although Tuel is not a farmer in the traditional sense, her organization preserves the forests, wetlands and farmland on its property. When Tuel purchased the land in 1994, it was part of the county agricultural land preservation program.
Many farmers who decide to preserve their land for agriculture have switched from traditional, large-scale farms to smaller operations that target particular markets.
Glenelg farmers Jim and Linda Brown once rented several hundred acres for their dairy operation. However, they left the dairy business about 20 years ago, and that rented land has been developed.
"We just weren't making any money from the dairy anymore, so we probably would've lost the farm if we had continued," Linda Brown said. She and her family started growing vegetables on their 100-acre farm, but even tending crops was "very intensive, back-breaking work," so the Browns decided to try something different.
Their farm now features pick-your-own pumpkins and hayrides in the fall and Christmas trees in the winter. The family distributes brochures, advertises in newspapers and posts signs around the property to attract customers.
The Browns, who work full time on the farm, want to stay in agriculture. Their farm has been in the family since in the 1860s. Brown said they are "starting a new era" of selling just pumpkins and trees to adapt to the changing business.
Larry Moore used to run a dairy farm, as well, but he left dairying after moving to Woodbine with his family and establishing Larriland in 1963. The Moores began growing fruits and vegetables in the 1970s because they had a higher income potential than other crops.
Today, Moore's children manage the 285-acre farm, which attracts customers with pick-your-own fruits and vegetables and pumpkin patches. Most of the family's income is generated from the crops grown and sold in the fields. The family also offers hayrides.
Lynn Moore, one of Moore's children, said she and her siblings work on the farm six days a week, while their spouses have jobs elsewhere. She grew up doing farm work and decided to continue as an adult in the family business.
"Frequently, careers are chosen based on what the parents do," she said.
While many farmers in Howard County have moved away from traditional farming, the Patrick family of Woodbine operates one of the county's five remaining dairy farms. The family's main source of income comes from selling milk, although the sale of soybeans is becoming increasingly profitable.
David Patrick is concerned about last year's drop in milk prices, but he said his sons remain interested in dairying. The Patricks milk about 170 cows and exhibit their animals at cattle shows. They own two farms that total 250 acres and rent about 1,000 acres on 14 farms.
The properties owned by the Browns, Moores and Patricks are also in the agricultural land preservation program, which includes more than 20,000 acres of farmland in Howard County.
Joy Levy, the program's administrator, said that about 21 percent of the western part of the county is under some type of agricultural easement, which is an agreement that prevents the property owner from exercising development rights on the land.
The county program provides benefits for farmers who sell land development rights to the program.
Farmers can receive tens of thousands of dollars an acre from the preservation program. The county acquired the development rights of one 400-acre farm in 2002, and the program is reviewing applications on three properties.
Many former farms in Howard County have been sold to developers.
"There's intense pressure on farmers to develop their land, since people want to live out in the country," Levy said.