Oh, the farmer and the suburbanite should be friends

March 30, 1997|By Elise Armacost

MY HUSBAND seriously threatened our marriage the other night when he suggested that my family touched off suburban sprawl. He might as well have accused the Kennedys of Republican leanings.

I'm not much into genealogy, but I'm told my father's father's people got off the boat in the early 1700s, settling in what became northern Baltimore and Carroll counties, where they have farmed ever since. My father's mother's people came over a century later and farmed the same area.

''We didn't 'sprawl' here, we've been here,'' I insisted. ''We're rural. We were farmers.''

It's true, however, that my immediate family did not farm, which is my husband's point. Grandpap carved us a lot from his property, a couple of miles outside of town. Dad commuted to Baltimore during the 1960s, then worked in factories closer to home. From a land-use standpoint, my husband asks, were we really all that different than the people who now live in developments?

There is, I confess, merit in his argument that people like us were transitional figures in the evolution of rural America from a place where people lived because they made their living on the land to a place where people live because they like the idea of having a yard in the country. Still, there is a huge difference between many of today's transplanted suburbanites and ''transitional'' folk who live in the country because that's where they came from.

The difference is not so much in how they use the land, but in their attitudes toward it. People like us, because we were only a generation removed from farming, melded happily and unconsciously into the agricultural landscape. We still raised our own pork one or two hogs at a time, fried eggs from my grandparents' chicken house, drank milk squeezed from their cow that morning.

We liked barn smells and the sound of tractors plowing the fields behind us. It didn't ruin our day if we got stuck behind a combine on the way into town, or if the flies were bad during a hot weekend. We expected these things.

Generally speaking, the people moving out to the rural counties do not expect them. Their idea of idyllic country existence does not include the sensory realities of rural life. How could it, since many of them have never had a connection to it?

Curiously, the farmers seem to resent the transformation wrought by these newcomers less than their transitional neighbors. I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect it's because transitionals have less leverage. They have virtually no land to sell if they get to the giving-up point. They feel powerless, at the mercy of suburbanites they can't stop from coming and farmers they can't stop from selling out. They consider the agricultural heritage theirs, but can only stand by and watch while the farmer next door decides whether they'll continue to enjoy it.

Of course, many of these new people enjoy looking out their back doors at fields, trees and grazing animals just as we did. They have every right to that, just as we had. But they are not understanding of agriculture as we were.

Offended by snap beans

The noise from farm machinery bothers some. People get angrily impatient waiting behind a slow-moving tractor. T. Edward Lippy, co-owner of a large family farming business in Carroll County, says he has given up planting snap beans in one large field because people complained when he sprayed them, even at 6 a.m. when virtually no one was outdoors. The smell of manure lagoons, an environmentally sanctioned method for protecting streams and ground water from animal waste, causes controversy -- even when a farmer complies with all environmental and other regulations.

Last week Maryland's House of Delegates was still wrangling over expanding the state right-to-farm law to protect new farms and those changing operations, as well as existing agricultural businesses, from lawsuits and misdemeanor nuisance charges brought by neighbors. It doesn't protect sloppy farmers who break the rules from being sued, only those who are in compliance.

The bill, which has won Senate approval, is important to the future of Maryland agriculture. It won't survive if farmers can't use new technologies, machinery and methods needed to stay competitive, or if they have to fight court battles every time somebody smells something nose-wrinkling.

Recent history has made it pretty obvious, I think, that suburban development and farming are not made for each other. What suburban residents want is incompatible with the things farmers have to do. Making them neighbors is a losing proposition for both sides.

But having allowed them to become neighbors, it's time to help them live with each other. Residents should be protected from bad farmers. And good farmers should be protected from those who don't understand what they do, who expect crops to flourish without fertilizer and roosters not to crow at dawn.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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