Governor's Meeting With Local Farmers Highlights Agritourism

By Andrea Shiell, County Times

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (July 30, 2008)—For those driving down Budds Creek Road in Clements, past farmlands dotted with barns and houses, the famous Bowles Farm Corn Maze may not stand out immediately, but upon closer inspection, one is bound to see how this one feature highlights the local shift in agriculture.

Though featured in many regions of Europe throughout the last few decades, “agritourism” has just started catching on in St. Mary’s County, where many farmers are looking to diversify their income as the Maryland tobacco buyout program draws to a close.

“We’ve been doing it since 2001,” said co-owner Tina Bowles. “My husband saw a corn maze in a farm magazine and he said ‘that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Tina mentioned that at the same time she and her husband were adding a maze to their acreage, the Wood Family from Forrest Hall Farm in Mechanicsville were doing the same.

“There’s a group of people who will go to wherever a corn maze is,” said Mary Wood, adding that the influx of visitors has been a great source of income for her farm. “These kinds of things I think fit right into the tourism here.”

As part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) “Capital for a Day” event, wherein he toured other portions of the county and historic Leonardtown, talking with locals about issues close to home, the governor also stopped by Bowles Farm. Though he and his cabinet members opted out of jumping into the labyrinth, some discussion abounded as to the importance of agritourism in the region, as well as other issues.

O’Malley took part of his meeting with local farmers as a chance to highlight his administration’s successes in the field of agriculture.

“The decisions we make, whether it’s about zoning, whether it’s about open space…whether it’s about buying local… we are going to follow your lead,” O’Malley said, mentioning that of the 109 recommendations received by his administration from Maryland farmers concerning such issues, “all but seven have either been completed or are underway.”

One issue raised during Thursday’s meeting was energy and land conservation, as brought up by one farmer who was interested in seeing more funding to allow for research and development of wind turbines and solar energy.

“We hope that by a certain date…20 percent of the energy we use as people will come from renewable resources,” said O’Malley, adding that education and green buildings would be the county’s biggest asset in the wake of the energy crisis. “I think we’re about to head through 10 to 15 years of rapid, rapid change,” he said.

Some farmers expressed concern about the Maryland Tobacco Buyout Program, which will end in two years.

“We absolutely have a fear of what’s going to happen to our land after that ends,” said Tina Bowles after O’Malley’s meeting with the farmers, adding that 10 years would not be enough time for many farmers to switch over to other crops and still make a profit. Though some like Tina Bowles have turned to wine grape growing and agritourism to boost their income and keep their farmland productive, she said yields would differ drastically as farmers switched to other crops.

When asked what she thought the Governor could do to help farmers transition, Tina Bowles recommended a task force or panel be created to look into the matter.

“I think the best thing… right now is to convene some sort of work group or task force and really look at the issue… there have been 300 families who have been put out of work in this county alone,” Tina Bowles said.” It’s a good program, but it has the potential to be devastating if it’s not followed through.”

O’Malley mentioned during his meeting with local farmers that the amount of acreage per person had declined by 20 percent in the last 15 years, and many echoed this statistic as they voiced concerns over residential developments taking over what used to be farmland.

“You can eyeball our community and know that that used to be a farm, and now it’s a housing development,” said Tina Bowles, who hopes to see development slow down in the next few years until public facilities and school capacity can accommodate it.

All present seemed heartily enthusiastic about the governor’s visit, presenting him with gift baskets and suggestions.

“In this world you need a farmer at least three times a day,” Dyson said while addressing the crowd. “And if you ever travel to a farmer and see them, you never leave empty handed.”

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