Md. loses 3% of farmland, 7% of farmers

5-year census covers 1992-1997

February 02, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Maryland lost 3 percent of its farmland and 7 percent of its farms between 1992 and 1997, according to a five-year census released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But as farmland and farmers become more scarce, the impact of agriculture on Maryland's economy continues to grow.

"Although we are losing farms, we are not losing the economic importance of agriculture," said Ray Garibay, chief statistician with the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, a local arm of the USDA, in releasing the census results.

Garibay pointed out that farm sales of crops and livestock totaled $1.3 billion in 1997, up 12 percent over the span of the census.

Over the same period, average sales per farm jumped 21 percent to $108,580.

"While there are fewer farms," Garibay said, "the value of their commodities [is] getting bigger."

Looking at the broader definition of agriculture, which includes the production of food and fiber, Garibay said agriculture is a $17.8 billion industry in the state.

According to the census, Maryland is losing farmland faster than the nation as a whole. While the state was losing 3 percent of its farmland over the five-year period, the entire nation was losing 2 percent.

"There is a lot more development pressure on Maryland farms than farms in other parts of the country," Garibay said.

Residential and commercial development is cited as the primary reason for the high value of Maryland farmland. The average value of farm real estate in Maryland, including buildings, reached a record $4,120 per acre last year. The average for the United States is $1,000 per acre.

Seven percent of Maryland's farms have disappeared over the census period, compared with 1 percent of farms across the nation.

In 1997, there were 12,084 farms in the state, covering 2.15 million acres.

Jim Hanson, assistant director of the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension, expressed concern over the state's continued loss of farmers and farmland.

"We are losing one farmer and 144 acres of farmland every 33 hours," he said.

"That has extracted a large social and economic cost to individual families and rural communities."

Hanson said the census shows that the surviving farms are becoming more profitable by switching to higher-value crops and livestock including vegetables, poultry and greenhouse/nursery products.

Anne Arundel County lost 20 percent of its farmland and 18 percent of its full-time farmers, according to the survey. At the same time, the value of its agriculture production rose 12 percent.

While Maryland has a significant number of large farms (almost 21 percent had sales of more than $100,000), the census revealed that half of the state's farms sold less than $10,000 worth of agricultural products in 1997.

Twenty-six percent of the farms recorded sales of less than $2,500.

In contrast, less than 10 percent of the state's farms accounted for more than 85 percent of the total market value of agricultural products sold in 1997.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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