Good for the farmer? Depends what you mean


June 02, 1996|By Mike Burns

WHEN CHILDREN complain about the rain, the inevitable adult response is that "it's good for the farmer."

But this simplistic saying confuses the eternal complexities of raising food and fiber. Rain is needed sometimes, in certain amounts, and hot sunshine is needed at other times. Cool weather can help or it can hurt, depending on its intensity and duration. And so forth.

A month ago, Carroll grain farmers were worried about too much rain delaying their spring planting.

At the same time, local strawberry growers were turning on their irrigation systems to fight the unseasonably cold temperatures and deadly frost that could wipe out this year's harvest.

While they depend on the vagaries of nature, farmers know what kind of weather they want and when. They try to compensate with human remedies when the elements don't cooperate. Trouble is, different growers may need different kinds of weather at different times.

There's no universal formula for success: Rain is not always good for the farmer.

That lesson is something that could be applied to Carroll County's ongoing debate about the future of agriculture and what's good for its farmers. It all depends on what type of economy and what type of landscape you want, and on the unpredictable vagaries of human nature. Not all farmers think alike, and not all county residents share the same values with respect to farming.

While Carroll's landscape today reflects its strong agricultural heritage, farmers and farm-related workers are greatly outnumbered by non-farming residents.

A shrinking activity

Farming is still the most obvious economic enterprise, but it has become less important to the total county economy. Almost two-thirds of working residents commute to jobs outside Carroll's boundaries and many Carroll farmers hold other jobs off the farm. Factor in the hobby farms, the horse farmettes, the unworked agricultural properties, and the importance of real farming activity shrinks even more.

Carroll has more agricultural acres in preservation than any other Maryland county, and it ranks among the leaders of that agrarian protection movement in the nation. Yet local farmers loudly complain that they have been robbed of millions of dollars in land equity through recent county down-zoning actions that devalued their property and threaten the substantial loans that are essential to profitable farming.

The bucolic appearance of Carroll has attracted lots of nonfarmers to move here. Only later do they understand the inconveniences of living next to working farms, and they try to stop farmers from practical farming.

Given this background, it is understandable that Carroll farmers feel they are misunderstood and mistreated.

The controversy over Senate Bill 649, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed last month, is simply the latest flash point. That bill, opposed by the county commissioners but pressed by the Carroll legislative delegation, would have exempted up to four lots on farmland from meeting "adequate public facilities" standards.

The legislation was said to correct an inequity in the county Planning and Zoning Commission's treatment of subdivided farm lots. Development rights for farmland were reduced from one acre per lot to 20 acres per lot in 1978. In exchange, farm development was to be cut loose from red tape. But when the planning commission recently began subjecting small subdivisions to the adequate facilities tests, some farm owners felt their development rights would soon be betrayed.

Farmers' different needs

All farmland owners may feel they have lost value or potential value in their land. But not all want to sell their property now, or to carve out a few residential lots. Some may be near retirement, some are just starting: each has different views of their current needs. Some farmers have family to carry on active farming on their land, others are looking to sell out for non-farm use.

And any number of Carroll farmers -- about 180 farms -- have their land dedicated for agricultural use only, through state and county farmland preservation programs that pay for the "development rights" of the acreage. Some have given environmental easements to nonprofit land trusts without any payment at all.

Others plan to keep their land as farms, but don't want to compromise their future options.

So the "good for the farmer" slogan can mean any number of things when it comes to agricultural land use, and potential use.

One thing that is not good for farming is to allow agricultural acres to be used for land speculation, banked for future development at the whim of the owner. Nor is it good for farming to have these lands restricted as living museums, regardless of their productivity, as mere scenic open space amenities.

Finding the proper balance of equities is the challenge. We want the county to be good for the farmer, and for the non-farmer as well.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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