Census finding of more farmland disputed

Number of farms dropped 3.4% from 1992 to 1997

February 28, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Federal census figures show that Carroll County increased its farmland by 2 percent between 1992 and 1997, but officials here say there was a loss of total farmland to housing development.

However, comparing the two census years to figure out how much farmland Carroll lost is difficult because the 1997 census was conducted by a different federal agency than in the past, said Ray Garibay, statistician for the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Comparing the two years is further complicated, Garibay said, because the definition of a farm has changed to include Christmas tree farms and farms that are completely in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and not producing crops.

"This is not an exact science," said David L. Greene, director of the Maryland Extension Service in Carroll County. "Obviously, we have not increased acreage. We've lost land to housing, basically."

Garibay said that although there are discrepancies between the two years, he is more confident about the 1997 figures, because they were compiled by the USDA -- his employer -- and he knows more about its compiling methods.

The information was collected for 1997 and released this month by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, part of the USDA. The 1992 census and previous ones were done by the Census Bureau in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

For the agricultural community in Carroll, the good news in the report is more in keeping down losses than trumpeting gains.

The number of farms, regardless of acreage, shows an average loss statewide, but a smaller one for Carroll. Maryland lost 7 percent of its farms between 1992 and 1997; Carroll lost 3.4 percent.

Looking only at the amount of land in farming, however, Maryland lost 3 percent of its farmland between 1992 and 1997. Carroll County's farmland shows an increase of about 2 percent, from 157,505 acres in 1992 to 160,180 acres in 1997, according to the report. Carroll County has 7 percent of the total farmland in the state.

This year, the census includes in the "total land in farming" figure farms that are completely in soil conservation, which in Carroll accounts for roughly 441 acres, said Susan Hardinger, an administrator at the Carroll Soil Conservation District.

The census now counts Christmas tree farms. Carroll leads the state in tree farms in all three categories: number, 33; acres, 191; and sales, $384,000.

Greene said the most revealing figures about Carroll farming are the increase and decrease in farms in each size category.

In Carroll, farms of 1,000 acres or more increased from 16 to 20 between the two census reports, while farms in the middle range, 50 to 179 acres, decreased, from 371 in 1992 to 321 in 1997. The number of farms in the sizes just above and below the middle range stayed virtually the same.

"So what we're seeing here is there's a need to get larger to realize the economies of scale that are available in agriculture," Greene said. "You buy a thousand bags of seed, you get a better deal than if you buy a hundred bags of seed."

The report also showed that farms of 9 or fewer acres increased, from 92 to 105. Greene speculated that these smaller farms are raising high-value crops, such as vegetables and hay, allowing them to earn more per acre.

Most of the county's horse farms are not counted in this census, he said, because most of them are a hobby of the owner rather than a business. But he noted that there are an estimated 10,000 horses in Carroll -- about the same number as dairy cows.

"And what do horses eat?" Greene asked, explaining why farmers are planting more hay and earning money by selling it as feed.

Vegetables and hay also are helping larger farms diversify, Greene said, as a hedge against low grain prices.

The census showed Carroll farmers planted more hay and vegetables in 1997 than in 1992 -- 3,779 acres of vegetables and 27,343 acres of hay. In 1992, there were 26,270 hay acres and 3,164 with vegetables.

"Carroll County now has more acres in vegetables than any other county [in the state] west of the Chesapeake Bay," Greene said.

Greene said Carroll's agricultural preservation efforts may be giving Carroll farmers hope and helping to keep some of them from selling their land.

"I would look at that as a reason," he said.

Another report, a statewide study of farm preservation, characterizes Carroll as a combination of prime soil and rapid residential growth, but still a major producer in the statewide agricultural industry.

The Farms for the Future report was done last year by a coalition of farmers, conservationists, and state and county officials. Fields project specialist Donna Mennitto, a Carroll County planner in the 1980s, presented the report to the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Board recently.

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