A Queen's Brief, Crowning Glory

August 23, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

The three contestants for Howard County farm queen, squirming in their scratchy new dresses, rocked on the balls of their feet, backward and forward, backward and forward.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

The judges huddled in an office at the quaint fairgrounds next to Interstate 70, deciding the winner.

The contest was last Sunday in the same damp show ring where an hour earlier the milking contest was held and a couple of hours later sheep and pigs would be shown.

As the judges considered the girls' backgrounds, one fact stood out: Of the three contestants for farm queen, only one lived on a farm.

If you peel the skin away from that fact you'll find a trend not only in Howard County, but also all along the congested Washington-Baltimore corridor.

Compact "farmettes" or "hobby farms," as they're called, are replacing the large, working farm. The traditional farm is dying.

Shannon Harrison, one of the contestants, has lived all but the first two months of her life on an 80-acre dairy farm in Woodbine. She is a cheerful, energetic 16-year-old with freckles on her cheeks.

She feeds calves, milks cows, unloads hay and works alongside her brother and parents.

She even keeps a few pigs she shows at the fair. She would have to show them after the farm queen contest.

She loves the farm, she says, and doesn't mind those few classmates at Glenelg High School who think "farmers are poor people with yucky clothes." But she's quick to add that those same classmates say to her: "Oh, you don't look like you live on a farm."

When her parents bought the farm in 1977, they could look out their kitchen window and see but one house, an old farmhouse surrounded by fields. That pastoral view is gone forever.

Today, they see 48 houses being built on what was a neighbor's 200-acre dairy farm, 25 houses going up on what were 75 acres of crop land and, directly across the narrow road, wells being drilled for 27 houses on what was a sloping field of green sod.

What's more, the Harrisons rent 350 acres -- 250 in Howard and 100 in Carroll County -- on which they grow hay and corn for their 190 Holstein calves, heifers and cows.

The 250 acres in Howard have been subdivided and are for sale.

The Harrisons, reluctantly, have subdivided their farm and staked a "for sale" sign out front.

They are losing the acres they rent and they don't want to run a farm in the middle of suburbia. They have their eye on a 215-acre farm in Frederick County in a farming valley 30 miles to the west.

"What choice do we have, really," says Susan Harrison, Shannon's mother.

"For this area, I think the large farms are just about history. The 3-acre farm is the coming thing."

Margaret Cahill, 16, another of the farm queen contestants, lives on a 2 1/2 -acre farmette in Columbia. She keeps a rabbit, two horses and a dog named Grim.

Joella Russell, 17, the third contestant, lives on one acre in Mount Airy. She has pigeons, rabbits, chickens and two dogs. She takes care of a cow at a nearby farm.

This is typical of farm queen contests in Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Howard counties, and to a lesser degree in Baltimore and Harford counties, says John Butler, field services director for the Maryland Farm Bureau. He coordinates the state farm queen contest and attends contests in the 23 counties.

The Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and counties from Carroll on west still have no trouble finding contestants from working farms, Mr. Butler says.

"Agriculture is still very viable in Maryland," he says. "I don't want to indicate that it isn't."

The number of farms in Maryland, about 15,000, actually increased by 200 from 1987 to this year, according to U.S. Census figures.

Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, says the more accurate description of what increased are "farm units," which include some farmettes, part-time farmers and gardeners who sell produce.

A more meaningful statistic is the number of acres farmed in Maryland. And that, Mr. Evans says, has decreased every year since World War II.

Fewer young people are farming because of the large initial expense, the lack of land and the hard work.

So the average age of farmers is increasing. A 16- or 17-year-old contestant in a farm queen contest is more likely to be the granddaughter of a farmer than the daughter.

At the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair tonight, for example, judges will select the queen from six contestants and the king from three.

Of those nine teen-agers, says Shelli Dronsfield, a fair official, only one lives on a traditional farm.

But all are active in 4-H. And that represents the flip side of the trend: 4-H clubs in suburban counties are thriving. Parents moving into houses on old farmsteads seem to want their children to learn about agriculture and farm animals.

Margaret Cahill, the farm queen contestant in Howard County, says her parents moved from Baltimore's Mount Washington to Columbia eight years ago so they could have horses. Margaret has two.

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