It's a jungle out there in Harford County.
The rolling hills usually reserved for cows and sheep are home to exotic animals such as zebras, llamas and bison -- some as pets, others as part of an evolving agricultural community struggling to hang on amid housing developments and businesses.
"It's getting harder and harder for farmers to support themselves using the traditional farming system," said Joyce White, who keeps 10 llamas on her farm on the Harford-Baltimore County border. "They have to find other uses for their land."
Statewide, the trend toward smaller farms with high-value, exotic breeds has been gathering momentum over the years. Alpaca live in Baltimore County, ostrich-like emu in Dorchester County, and American buffalo in Wicomico County.
Though they keep no statistics on exotic animals, state and local agricultural officials say they've seen an increase in farm operations involving such species. They attribute it to the high cost of land, coupled with an increased number of part-time farmers.
"Because these farmers are competing with developers for real estate, to buy large tracts of land to farm now in Maryland is almost prohibitive," said Terry Poole, executive agent for agricultural science with the Frederick County Cooperative Extension Service.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Harford, where growth issues have dominated public debate for the past few years.
C. John Sullivan III, agricultural coordinator for the Harford County Office of Economic Development, said the area has a variety of farming enterprises, including aquaculture facilities.
"Because of the lay of the land and the soil, Harford County lends itself to different types of agriculture," said Sullivan, who counts 695 full-time farmers in the county, employing 3,000. "It diversifies our agricultural economy a great deal."
While some of those farmers raise unusual animals, not all of the exotic creatures are there for business.
In Bel Air, people driving down U.S. 1 might catch a glance of Zipper, a 2-year-old zebra, and his 3-year-old female companion, Girlie. They are pets, often seen munching the grass on Peggy Fink's 6 acres. Drivers are often startled to see the 800-pound zebra grazing, Fink said.
"They definitely take a second look," she said, laughing. "Sometimes they turn around and double back, and you just know that people are in their cars arguing, saying, 'Yes, I did just see a zebra.' "
Dr. John Brooks, a veterinarian and former president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association and its Harford chapter, said he has seen his share of trendy pets and farm animals, from pot-bellied pigs to an unusual breed of goat that faints periodically.
"We had a run of fainting goats there for a while," Brooks said. "Llamas and emu are probably the most exotic I have worked on. Many of these things, frankly, are a fad."
Such trendy businesses have trouble staying afloat. A few years ago, llamas could be purchased for $25,000 to $35,000 each. Now they can sell for $5,000, a reflection of the increased number of people in the business and the drop in demand.
"The emu market kind of went way up, and then it went way down," said Jim Hanson, assistant director of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. "Those kinds of markets come and go."
Officials said enthusiasts have raised awareness about niche farming and products by setting up booths at local fairs to sell their wares and distribute literature.
Paul D. Hines, who raises bison on his Cedarvale Farm in Churchville, has been in business for about 20 years and said Harford County offers him an ideal location. Hines farms on 60 acres and charges $4.25 a pound for ground bison patties and $14 a pound or more for T-bone and porterhouse steaks.
"The climate is usually right, and the bison just graze on the grass and you give them hay in the winter," Hines said.
His biggest expense, he said, is fences to keep his herd of 21 bison from straying onto his neighbors' property.
"People don't want wild animals roaming around their yards," he said.
Pub Date: 11/04/98