Saving Howard's Remaining Farms HOWARD COUNTY

July 20, 1993

It is worth noting that Howard did not make the American Farmland Trust's recent list of Maryland counties where agriculture is endangered -- not because Howard's farm industry isn't threatened, but because, under the trust's criteria, Howard farms are extinct.

Nine Maryland counties -- including Carroll, Baltimore and Harford in the Baltimore metro area -- are among the most threatened agricultural regions in the U.S. Maryland's counties rank behind California's Central Valley, South Florida and the California coast around Monterey, regions responsible for growing vegetables and fruits that feed the nation.

During the past decade, more than 300,000 acres of highly productive farmland were lost forever to houses, office buildings, shopping centers and parking lots in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Nearly 13,000 acres were lost in Howard alone during that span, planners say.

While farming is no longer Howard County's main economic activity, there are still people growing crops and raising animals here. The county's general plan acknowledges that what agriculture remains needs to be preserved. With rural residen tial and conservation zoning, the county has created a system that allows limited residential development in the western section of the county but also buffers the existing farms from suburban sprawl.

Along with zoning, county officials have used an innovative agricultural easement program to double the number of acres permanently dedicated to farming in the past four years. Through the use of installment purchases, creative use of zero-coupon bonds and transfer of development rights, Howard officials have been able to put about 14,000 acres under protective agricultural easements.

Land use is not the only factor that determines whether farming continues in Howard. Everything from commodities prices set in global markets to the willingness of the next generation to work the land also determines whether farming survives. Given the high prices that developers are willing to pay for real estate in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, it is hard for farmers not to give up and sell out. With the county's comprehensive strategy to create conditions favorable to farming, some of the pressure to develop prime farmland can be resisted.

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