Frederick's vanishing farms

July 27, 1992

At 664 square miles, Frederick is Maryland's largest county. Although it borders on such high-growth areas as Montgomery, Howard and Carroll counties, an estimated 85 percent of Frederick County's surface is still open space, acreage largely zoned for agricultural use. But as growth pressures increase, traditional farming is rapidly shrinking.

According to new U.S. Census data, the number of Frederick residents living on farms dropped from 4,112 in 1980 to 2,950 in 1990. This 28.25 percent decrease exceeded both Maryland's statewide drop in farm residents and the nationwide decrease. Meanwhile, the county's population zoomed from 84,927 to 149,550 in 1990. It is expected to increase another 34 percent by the year 2000.

These trends have become strikingly visible in recent years as new housing developments have mushroomed in previously rural areas, and Frederick County has become more tightly linked to the Washington metropolitan area. Urbanization has been particularly noticeable in the Interstate 270 corridor, the increasingly congested thoroughfare that connects Frederick City with Germantown, Rockville and Washington.

Although Frederick farmers still pride themselves on being the second largest milk producers in a six-state Mid-Atlantic area, some wonder how long such records will last. "Back in the '70s we had over 700 dairy farms in the county and we're down to somewhere in the 300s now. That's a 50 percent drop in 15 years," remarks Harold Lenhart, a dairy farmer who heads the Frederick County Farm Bureau.

Census figures also track another trend: An increasing number of people who live on farms do not do farm work. Conversely, many farmers and farm workers do not themselves live on farms.

Fewer and fewer farmers can rely solely on farm income. Jan Staley, executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, estimates that more than half of Frederick farmers have spouses who work off the farm. "And a lot of the farmers themselves work part time off the farm -- selling seed, hauling grain, doing custom work, a lot have school buses they drive."

These trend-lines are sharper in Frederick but they follow nationwide changes. However much we regret to admit it, everything from skyrocketing land values to the high costs of operating profitable agro-businesses is working against family farms. It is a thought to keep in mind as this year's county fairs start with their lamb-shearing contests and prizes for biggest cucumbers.

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