We at Forrest Hall Farm believe
that agri-tourism is emerging as a respected and viable form of agriculture operation in our community. We found ourselves on this agri-tourism road as we transitioned out of 50 years of tobacco production - partly because we were looking for an alternative crop that would allow the entire family to work together as we did with tobacco.
During the winter of 2000, we came across an article about corn mazes in Progressive Farmer magazine and were intrigued by the possibilities. We weren't sure, though, how something like this would be received in the community. We were sure of one thing - growing a little corn and a little hay was not going to make up the missing farm income from tobacco production. We had to come up with something better than that.
With the support of our children and grandchildren, we decided to try a corn maze and if we didn't like it, if no one came or it was just too much work, we just wouldn't do it again. To our surprise, it was great fun to do and people did come. They came from everywhere - neighbors down the road, visitors from the tri-county area, visitors from all over the country...Europe and Canada. We had local school trips and youth organizations from both the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan area as well as from areas in Virginia. We had visitors just passing through who found us by accident, people visiting other tourist attractions in the county, and during the second and third seasons...we actually had returning visitors...coming again and again.
The corn maze was the draw, but what we found was that people liked visiting the farm itself and learning about agriculture. What better way to gain community support for agriculture than to educate the public and have a little fun in the process. We tried to talk with as many visitors as possible each day, and we encouraged them to ask questions about our operation and farming in general...and they sure did! "Why don't you grow cotton here?" "Why don't you have dairy cows?" "Can people eat field corn?" (We particularly liked that one.) "Why do you have so many tractors?" (Joe always hoped no one would ever ask Mary that.) "Is the corn still good when it gets hard?" And so on...Our visitors told us over and over how much they enjoyed and appreciated a real farm experience in an atmosphere that encouraged them to "stay-a-while and chat."
Our plan at this time is to grow our operation slowly - one season at a time. We have moved from a simple maze design to one of increasing levels of complexity combined into one design. We continue with the farm animal visits, the hayride, pumpkin patch, picnic area, haywagon slide, and volleyball or tetherball area. We've added a wider variety of snacks, field-grown and potted mum sales, fresh produce, an orchard, and gift items. With this we found that we needed a store, which officially opened in 2004. Our shop focuses on the fall harvest season to compliment what is already in place. So far, so good.
The point of my story is simple ... agri-tourism is a very real and viable farming operation...and it, as well as us, are here to stay! It may not be for everyone, but for us it is good...we enjoy the business...and it's working!
Our farming operation is not without obstacles, however; for some, getting adequate liability insurance has been an issue. Not for us. An obstacle for us is getting our operation recognized as being equal to a crop in terms of farm income. The first year we had a drought; the second year the D.C. Sniper issue was occurring and all school trips were canceled; the third year in rolls Hurricane Isabel. We could insure the five acres of corn as a crop, but not the income derived from it as a maze. A five acre maze income is quite a bit different from a five acre corn harvest. Most people may not know that you can only insure an apple crop in seven counties in the state of Maryland. And St. Mary's is not one of them ! That surely needs to change if farmers are to be able to switch from tobacco to a viable alternative crop.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture is supportive and helpful in that they will display our business fliers and brochures, include our event calendar, and help us find needed resources. Locally, our offices of agriculture and tourism are within the Department of Economic Development. The Cooperative Extension Service is a wealth of information on local resources and then there's also the Tri-County Council. We don't think you can beat the leadership, creative thinking, and support that Tri-County Council offers to new and developing agri-businesses. We've found it to be beneficial and a real pleasure to work with all of these great people.
We hope that as each of us looks down the road and plans for the future of our farm and our agricultural operation, that agri-tourism be kept in open minds as a viable solution. We've found it to be good for us and our family, and we believe it is good for our community and agriculture in general.