Farming in Howard in the 21st century


October 18, 1998|By Harold Jackson

AS FARM after farm in Howard County is subdivided for residential development, old-timers get discouraged that one day they'll wake up and discover that what was once a thriving area of agricultural activity in central Maryland has become just another place to come home from the office and watch TV.

New information about trends in the county, however, are reassuring.

Farming is no more likely to become extinct here than it is anywhere else in the nation. But, as in the rest of the country, it will be different. There will be fewer small, family farms and successful operations will grow non-traditional products.

It is another tribute to the leadership of County Executive Charles I. Ecker that his administration has taken an active role in assisting local farmers to make necessary changes to ensure their survival.

He used county Planning and Zoning Department funds to pay the salary of an agricultural marketing expert who worked out of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Food entrepreneurs

Until recently that person was Phil Gottwals, who in August left county government to become an agricultural marketing consultant. He is advising the state on efforts to open a food business incubator near the Maryland Food Center Authority in Jessup.

The food products incubator will link farmers to entrepreneurs who have good ideas for new grocery and restaurant products.

The incubator will provide the technical support to create a new business and develop and market a new product.

Mr. Gottwals, whose replacement is being sought, still works with county officials. He believes some of the dire predictions about farming in Howard are based on statistical information that doesn't provide a complete picture of what is happening.

He notes, for example, that figures from the Census Bureau place agricultural sales in Howard County at only about $18 million annually.

But if you include new products such as plants grown in hydroponic greenhouses, that figure would increase to nearly $40 million.

"We're generating a lot of capital on smaller acreages," Mr. Gottwals says.

But Howard County also has successful large farming operations.

Not every struggling farmer is selling out to developers. Some are selling their land to the competition, making them bigger and more profitable.

Mr. Gottwals says that while the number of dairy farmers has decreased dramatically, the tonnage of milk produced in Howard County hasn't significantly changed in 20 years.

Taking into consideration the land being sold to other farmers and the property being sold to developers, one can see what farming may look like in Howard County's future.

The term "build-out" is being heard more frequently as people surmise the day that no additional county farm land will be available for development.

Mr. Gottwals says about a 10-year supply of subdivided 3-acre lots is left.

Much of the remaining space in the county will continue to be devoted to farming. But the operations will include tree nurseries and ornamental plant greenhouses that don't fit the traditional description of a farm.

Horse farms, too, will continue. Statistically they are not considered agricultural entities, although they have an impact on the agriculture industry with grain-feed purchases and their use of veterinary services.

As the county inches closer toward rewriting its general development plan, it should keep in mind what steps may need to be taken to protect the viability of farming.

Zoning changes may be necessary to allow farmers to move from row crops to a more profitable agricultural product.

Farmers may need assistance to understand which regulatory agency has rules that apply to the new product they want to grow.

A fear of regulation and added paperwork keeps many farmers from trying something new.

As the space between farms and subdivisions continues to decrease, county government can implement programs that ease the communication between farmers and new neighbors who didn't anticipate all the smells and noises that go with farming.

Mr. Gottwals says some jurisdictions in other states require house purchasers to sign real estate disclosure forms acknowledging their awareness of a nearby farm.

900 farms to 300

The number of farms in Howard County has fallen from nearly 900 in the 1950s to less than 300. But agriculture here has a more than promising future.

The preservation of farmland as working farms, not just open space, is a worthy goal.

These businesses pay taxes. Their continued presence retains the charm that has long attracted families seeking a less hectic pace of life to Howard County.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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