Second job is often key to survival

WORKING TO KEEP THE FARM

August 22, 1993|By Aminah Franklin Staff Writer

James "Jimmy" Brown didn't punch a clock, work an eight-hour day or get a paycheck until he was almost 40 years old.

Before that he got up with the sun each day and made a living working with his father on the family's 86-acre dairy farm in Glenelg.

For years, profits from the Howard County farm supported his parents, his wife, Linda, and their three children.

Today, the large red barn that once housed 68 milking cows is run down and serves as a storehouse for hay and straw. The tanks, pipeline and other equipment have been sold, and the family's four pigs are kept in the milking barn.

Seven years ago Mr. Brown, who bought the farm from his father in the late 1970s, lost the battle against soaring land costs, shrinking profit margins and encroaching development. He was forced to sell the cows and limit the farm to crops and get another job to eke out a living.

In doing so, he joined a growing trend in agriculture in Maryland -- part-time farming.

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics for 1993 show that 62.4 percent of all the farms in Maryland, Delaware, South Carolina and West Virginia are part-time ventures -- generating less than $10,000 in annual sales -- compared to 60.8 percent in 1992 and 59 percent in 1991.

W. Stephen Meloy, manager of the Southern States Cooperative Grain Marketing Division in Anne Arundel County, said the co-op buys grain from about 400 farmers, 70 percent of whom are part-timers.

"We're seeing more and more of a lack of ability to make a living," he said. "The farming industry is very competitive, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that farming is not increasing in this area."

Mr. Brown, a foreman who supervises a road maintenance crew for the Columbia Association, attributes the hard times to the fact that although the cost of production has almost doubled since his father ran the farm, the market value for his crops hasn't significantly increased.

In 1978, he could plant an acre of corn for $110 and sell the crop for $2.75 a bushel, he said; today, it costs him $220 to plant an acre of corn and on the average he gets about $2.50 a bushel.

According to the USDA, the average market price for a bushel of corn in Maryland has increased only 54 cents in 42 years, from $1.66 in 1950 to $2.20 in 1992.

Pressure to plant more

"Today you have to worry about the cost of fertilizer and other chemicals, which are very expensive," Mr. Brown said. "The only way to get ahead is to kill yourself by planting more and producing more."

But increased production can flood the market and drive prices down, he said, forcing farmers to plant even more the next year to compete with the larger farms that dominate the market.

In 1991, the latest statistics available show that 80 percent of the nation's farm products were produced by only 15 percent of the country's 2.1 million farms. These farms had an average acreage of 1,557 acres. The average acreage of a Maryland farm for this year is only 146 acres.

In addition, the steady increase of suburban populations and growing pressure from developers have combined to increase land costs in Maryland, making it tough for farmers to expand and boost production.

Mr. Brown said that there is even a scarcity of land to rent because so many farmers are selling their property to developers.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the two-story farmhouse where he and his father were born, Mr. Brown's creased, sun-weathered face and calloused hands make him look older than his 45 years. He often wonders how earlier generations survived working the land.

"I mean, my parents raised six kids off this farm and only milked 20 cows. Seven years ago we had to sell the 68 cows we were milking because we couldn't afford to take care of our three kids. I just don't understand it."

He said 100 percent of the farm's revenue is funneled back into maintaining it. Since there is no extra cash flow, most of his $27,000 salary is used to cover the family's living costs.

Last year the farm's gross revenue totaled about $40,000, but the costs neared $43,000, Mr. Brown said, adding that the farm has only been close to breaking even for the past 10 years.

While many farmers, like Mr. Brown, need second jobs to meet basic living costs, others are seeking employment so they can send their children to college because, they say, the future in farming is bleak.

Employee health benefits are a further attraction for farmers who can't afford independent health insurance, said Howard County Farm Bureau President Martha Clark.

Teresa Stonesifer recognizes both of these needs.

Mrs. Stonesifer, who has taken over most of the responsibilities of running her family's 96-acre West Friendship cattle farm in Howard County, began driving a school bus six years ago.

'A loss for years'

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