A move to save the land by putting condos on it

ON THE BAY

May 28, 1994|By TOM HORTON

On his farm in the lovely, rolling countryside of northwestern Harford County, Scott Nevin wants to build condos in the name of perpetuating ecologically sound agriculture.

If that sounds radical, well, talk to Nevin for a while and you may end up wondering whether it's not the rest of the world that's gone a little crazy.

It was 1950 when he and his wife, Sally, moved here from Middle River to rear seven kids in the oddly long, rectangular farmhouse.

The home once was a duplex, and Scott and Sally lived on separate sides. He was widowed, she divorced. Both remained wedded to the farm, and 20 years ago married each other.

Their hilly land, purchased from a dairy farmer who had contracted typhoid from a hired man, was said in 1950 to be the worst eroded farm in Harford County.

Nearly half a century later, it is obvious that a extensive healing process has occurred here, testament to decades of painstaking labor, planting trees, filling gullies, improving the soil, removing rocks by the wagonload.

At a time when agricultural runoff is a major bay pollution concern, the annual yield from Saliscot Farm's 160 acres includes a gift of clear, clean water flowing gently into nearby Deer Creek, which flows to the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake.

Tramping across his pastures, Nevin talks a lot about his soil's "tilth", a wonderfully sensuous concept. It refers to the fertility and feel and workability of land; to its ability to absorb rainfall against flooding and erosion, to retain moisture against drought.

They always thought farming should be a long-term process, leaving the earth in better shape than one found it, but in 1977 the Nevins upped their commitment to a new and precarious level. They decided to end all use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers, aiming for what Nevin calls a "sustainable agriculture."

("Sustainable agriculture" has many definitions these days, from organic farming to one Maryland farmer's recent statement: "Sustainable is whatever lets me stay in business.")

On Saliscot Farm, grain crops were replaced with permanent grass pastures, beef cattle and fields of alfalfa hay. The cattle, 50-80 head, are managed intensively, moved from pasture to pasture almost daily, fertilizing with their manure as they go. In winter, they are fed hay that has been baled and stored in a big barn that seems to have grown organically out of the back of the farmhouse. Manure from the winter feedlot there is composted and spread back on the land.

There have been rewards large and small -- the return of millions of earthworms to sterile earth, the satisfactions of stewardship toward the land and the bay. Financially, however, Saliscot Farm has run in the red every year since 1977. The Nevins' federal 1040F forms show farm losses averaging $20,000 annually.

No matter. Agriculture, the way the Nevins see it, is a long-term, life time, even generational thing; a relationship to the land as well as a living from it, an art as well as a business. From the beginning, he never saw the transition to sustainable farming as less than a 15-year to 20-year process to achieve economic viability, Nevin says.

The smallest loss ever

The soil's tilth continues to improve. His loss this year -- less than $10,000 -- was the smallest ever, and he can see modest profitability in the future as the farm comes up to what he feels is its potential of about 100 cattle.

How have they survived up to this point? The same way that so many farmers have, pressed by federal cheap-food policies that bring them less for commodities now than in 1978, Scott says.

The Nevins have sold off parts of the farm -- to a son who lives on 80 acres and runs a successful chimney sweep business, and to homeowners desiring a lot in the country.

But now the farm, the Nevins' life work, is at a critical juncture. Selling off much more land would cripple the operation from ever achieving sustainability. And Scott is 76, Sally 78.

"She can't pick up a bale anymore," he says.

"He falls asleep running the tractor," she says.

It is an inescapable fact, he says, that if you forgo modern agriculture's big machinery and chemical use, you must substitute human labor.

For example, something so simple as birds sitting on farm fences and dropping seeds as they defecate necessitates a need for help in manual mowing, unless you are willing to zap the growth with herbicide.

Such labor is almost impossible to get. Nevin notes wryly that the last few homes that any farmhand could afford in this suburbanizing region have been burned by local fire departments for practice.

And Nevin says that none of their seven kids or 13 grandchildren ("It's 14 Scott, gosh!" Sally chides) are interested in taking over, though they all love to visit.

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