They won't let go of the land Farmers: In Queen Anne's County, a handful of young men defy the trends and the odds to continue their families' farms.

June 21, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Jamie Clough is 23, and has already mortgaged his future.

He still lives with his folks, puts in long hours at two jobs and rarely springs for a movie ticket. Yet he is more than $300,000 in debt, with nothing fancy to show for it.

All because of a single dream, a dream conceived when he was 11, on the afternoon he first climbed all by himself into a giant John Deere tractor, turned the key in the ignition and felt right at home.

"This is all I ever wanted to do," Clough says, surveying pale, long rows of wheat. "I just didn't know if it would ever work out."

On July 1, after months of hassling over loans, he will become the new owner of his grandparents' modest farm, 40 acres with two chicken houses, surrounded by the flat, broad fields of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Time was when the majority of young men in Queen Anne's County shared the same boyhood ambition. They grew up on family farms, handed from father to son.

They expected to marry and settle down after high school, perhaps buy some land of their own, and spend a lifetime milking cows and harvesting corn.

Nowadays, even in the most rural enclaves of Maryland, fewer and fewer farm children are following their forebears.

The same holds true across the country, as farmers age and their offspring find there's no place for them in the economics of modern agriculture.

The acreage is often too small to support extended families. The few who succeed usually inherit land, and even then, they may struggle to pay inheritance taxes or to buy out siblings.

"It's easy to over-generalize that young people don't want to farm anymore," says Howard Sacks, director of the Rural Life Center at Ohio's Kenyon College. "But unless they're fortunate enough to inherit their father's farm, it's incredibly difficult.

"The start-up costs are so high, and even with established farmers in their 40s and 50s, almost invariably one family member has an off-farm job to make it work."

Parents often are ambivalent about keeping their children from leaving the farm, he adds; they know there are easier ways to make a living.

So large numbers of family farms have disappeared since the 1980s, especially in densely populated states. Farming conglomerates bought some, but fast-developing suburbs claimed far more, from southern New England to Florida's Everglades and California's central valley.

The pace has begun to slow, mainly because there's less farmland, but the nation continues to lose some 2 million acres a year.

Maryland has one of the nation's oldest and best farm preservation programs. Yet, according to the American Farmland Trust, much of the state ranks with parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia as the region second most endangered by development.

Over the past two decades, highways, housing tracts and strip malls filled up nearly 800,000 acres of Maryland's farmland. The state lost 3,600 farms since 1976, 2,200 of them since 1990.

"It's almost impossible anymore to find someone selling a farm to another farmer, not for residential or commercial use," says Richard Dittman, a statistician who tracks Maryland agriculture statistics.

Much of the farmland that has been preserved lies in developed counties in central Maryland, while some of the richest property is getting bulldozed to the south and on the Eastern Shore.

Old farmland endures

On the eastern banks of the Chesapeake Bay, beyond the traffic-choked highway and outlet shops, Queen Anne's County still looks like the American heartland.

Farming has been a way of life for generations. First, there were small dairy farms; later came larger grain farms. Billy Riggs IV has settled with his bride, Doreen, into the caretaker's house on land near Centreville that's been in his family for a half-century. His grandfather, Billy Riggs Jr., started with 30 cows in 1948 when he bought the farm from an uncle. Today, Riggs and his father grow corn, wheat and barley.

"I'm like Dad," Riggs says, "and my granddad -- this is where our heart is." But for all of its deep roots, Queen Anne's farming tradition is disintegrating.

At 30, Riggs is one of only a few young farmers left. Most of the farmers he knows are at least as old as his father. The average county farmer is 63 years old.

Jamie Clough can count on one hand his classmates, of 340 who graduated in 1993 from Queen Anne's High, who went into farming. Even then, he recalls, the school's Future Farmers of America program had "hardly anything to do with traditional farming."

So few high schoolers had signed up a few years earlier that some talked of ending the program. It survived by reinventing itself to include horticulture, wildlife management and aquaculture.

Many students come from Kent Island, the sandy strip by the Bay Bridge that has largely turned into a bedroom community. The still-rural Centreville area is now on the cusp of the same development.

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