3/22/2014 7:00 AM
By Jamie Clark Tiralla Maryland Correspondent
The first ag-tourism signs are up in southern Maryland, launching a new pilot program aimed at helping the public connect with farms that offer agricultural tourism activities.
To date, signs have been installed at two farms in Charles County: Serenity Farms in Benedict and Zekiah Farms in Waldorf.
“As farmers diversify their operations and connect more directly with consumers, ag-tourism has become an important source of income for our farmers,” said Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Buddy Hance in a press release announcing the installation of the signs. “I thank SHA Secretary Jim Smith and his staff for their cooperation in developing the program. We look forward to expanding the program statewide so more residents can enjoy fresh products and lively activities right on the farm.”
The Ag-Tourism Sign Program developed as part of a joint initiative between the Charles County government, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, State Highway Administration and Maryland Department of Agriculture.
In order to qualify for an ag-tourism sign under the program, a farm must be open to the public for a minimum of six months of the year and offer on-site sale of local agricultural products. Additional criteria require the farm to be open at least four days per week and six hours per day. The farm must also have an educational tour that can be provided upon request by a knowledgeable guide or host public festivals, fairs and/or workshops.
Cindy Thorne of Zekiah Farms has been working for the several years with the Southern Maryland Ag Development Commission to see the program launch. She said she was eager to become one of the program’s flagship farms.
“We’re very pleased with the signs and thank all of the agencies who came together to make this possible. This is a great program and will do a lot of good for local farms,” Thorne said.
Before the program, Thorne said she was unable to post signs on state and county roads to direct traffic to her farm, which is open year-round. Her farm has two large signs on Route 5 in Waldorf as well as two smaller trailblazer signs on Bryantown Road.
“Before the signs, we relied on the Web for people to find us,” Thorne said. Now, she said she’s seeing an increase in local traffic coming to the farm as a result of putting in the signage. “The first weekend the signs went in, we had people stopping in and we’ve had traffic ever since. It’s definitely making it easier for people to find us.”
Franklin Robinson of Serenity Farms said he’s optimistic about the impact the signs will have on his upcoming season, which opens in April. “We’re honored and excited to be a part of the pilot program. There were many variables in organizing the qualifications for the program and we appreciate everyone’s cooperation. This is a great program that we hope benefits many other farmers,” Robinson said.
While the program is currently being piloted in Charles County, it will be available statewide. Expansion of the program will involve the Department of Agriculture and State Highway Administration working cooperatively with county governments to establish local programs to place ag-tourism signs on county roads directing traffic to the approved farm.
Farms that meet the criteria for the program can apply first through their county for signs on local roads and then to the state for signs on state-maintained roads. Individual farmers are responsible for all application fees, purchase of the signs and installation costs.
The Southern Maryland Ag Development Commission is offering a matching grant of up to $1,500 in matching funds for farms in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties. Up to three farms in each county will be awarded grants on a first come, first serve basis through April 2014.
For information concerning the ag-tourism sign program, contact Stone Slade with the Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5770 or email@example.com. For more information concerning SMADC funds, email firstname.lastname@example.org.