1980s leave farmers in turmoil Traditional farms turn to specialties to stay afloat. Hard times for farmers

October 30, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Maryland farmers have a tough row to hoe these days.

University of Maryland farm experts say drought, development, competition and low farm prices have wilted agricultural profits across the state in recent years.

The changes are forcing many farm families into part-time operations and encouraging the conversion of some more traditional farms to more lucrative specialties -- like nurseries and turf farms -- that serve the state's sprawling metropolitan areas.

"There is a lot of shifting and changing going on," said John Wysong, a dairy and beef specialist in UM's department of agricultural and resource economics at College Park.

"The 1980s have been a kind of period of churning and turmoil and financial distress" on Maryland's farms, he said.

Here are some of the losses:

* The state Department of Agriculture has reported farm profits this year are expected to fall 35 percent, from $400 million last year to a projected $261.4 million this year. Drought is part of the problem, but depressed prices for broilers, grains and milk are also to blame.

* The number of operating farms in Maryland has fallen more than 15 percent -- from 18,000 in 1982 to 15,200 in 1990. The average farm has also shrunk, from 164 acres in 1970 to 148 acres last year.

* The amount of land devoted to farm ing in Maryland has fallen nearly 27 percent since 1970, and by 18 percent since 1982.

* The total value of Maryland farm real estate has fallen 24 percent since 1982. The real estate value of the average farm has sunk more than 10 percent since 1982.

"Lots of things have changed the playing field," said Malcolm Commer, a livestock economist at UM.

Chief among them has been a shift in federal farm policies in the last decade that have increased the impact of national market conditions, consumer and environmental issues on Maryland farmers.

Maryland's biggest farm industry -- poultry -- provides an example.

Wysong said the volume of broiler chickens grown in Maryland burgeoned from 380 million pounds in 1960 to 1 billion pounds in 1980. But since then volume has steadied between $1.1 and 1.2 billion pounds.

"It's holding its own, and I would say it still has a small amount of growth," he said. "But it's not growing as much as it did."

Wysong blames the slowdown on environmental concerns relating to Chesapeake Bay and waste disposal, and on limited labor and feed supplies.

Another factor has been the consumer-driven expansion of broiler operations elsewhere across the South, which has depressed prices and reduced profits for Maryland's growers.

Dairy farmers in Maryland have also been under pressure.

Two-thirds are Maryland's cows and dairy production are in Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties, Wysong said. But "Frederick and Carroll were hit very hard in the 1980s with drought, and urban development has been moving in on Carroll and Frederick."

"From 1955 until 1987, we ran 1.5 billion to 1.6 billion pounds of milk per year," Wysong said. Losses to development in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties were made up elsewhere in better production per cow.

But in the past three years, he said, milk production in Maryland has fallen to 1.3 billion pounds. Milk prices, meanwhile, fell $3 per 100 pounds this year.

Consumer and market pressures have nearly erased tobacco farming as a major player in Maryland agriculture. Since 1985, acreage planted in tobacco in Maryland has fallen from 20,000 acres to barely 7,000 acres.

The future of farming in Maryland may lie in its ability to adjust to new realities.

A key challenge may be getting young people into the business. The financial incentive today is meager. As a consequence, Wysong said, the average age of farmers in Maryland is about 53 years and climbing.

Of Maryland's 15,000 farms, Wysong said, barely 2,600 have reported gross sales of $100,000 or more. That means all the rest, after they pay their bills, are probably earning $20,000 to $25,000 or less.

"That's not so much for people getting started," he said.

For those who still want to be farmers, the high cost of farm land presents a formidable barrier.

"In class I say there are two things in farming -- you make money on farming and you make money on land speculation," Wysong said.

From World War II until about 1980, he said, the value of farm land in Maryland grew by an average of 9 percent compounded annually. Land purchased for $100 to $500 an acre gradually grew to be worth $2,000 to $2,400 an acre.

After 1980, he said, "the whole thing leveled out." But "the value of it is [still] so high that it is very hard for young people to buy into it if they are using it just for farming."

Comer said "if you take 100 people and get them to buy agricultural land at the prevailing prices in Maryland, 90 of them will have a real problem paying for it and surviving on what you can make off that land, even with the best of educations."

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