Rural vanishing act

Maryland farmers and farms continue to decline in number

April 08, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

As Maryland farmers begin cranking up their tractors for the start of the spring planting season, they are fewer in number and they are tilling less land.

Continuing the trend of recent years, the state lost 100 farms and 50,000 acres of farmland last year, according to a recent survey by the Maryland Agriculture Statistics Service.

"It's the pressure of urban sprawl," Ray Garibay, head of the statistical service, said in explanation for Maryland's departure from the national trend, which showed an increase in the number of farms last year.

Garibay said state farmers are finding it more and more difficult to turn down developers' offers of $5,000 an acre for their land, especially after having just gone through two years of drought and very low commodity prices.

He said a double whammy of poor growing conditions and low prices has hit the pocketbooks of many farmers hard.

"They have a very small, if any, margin of profit," Garibay said.

While the number of farms here fell by 0.8 percent last year, they rose fractionally for the nation as a whole.

At the end of 1999, Garibay said, Maryland had 12,400 farms, down from 12,500 in 1998. Total land in farms totaled 2.1 million acres compared with 2.15 million acres in 1998.

Between 1989 and 1999, agricultural land in the state fell by 8.7 percent. Farmland acreage has dropped nearly 5 percent in the past three years.

Phil Councell Jr., an Eastern Shore grain farmer and president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, also blamed development pressures for the dwindling number of farms.

But that's not the only reason, he said before criticizing the state government for not being particularly friendly to agriculture, Maryland's largest industry.

"The last couple of years, Maryland has sent out the message that it wants farmland, but not farmers," Councell said while preparing to plant a field of corn.

He expressed his concern that the nutrient-management regulations now being finalized will force even more farms out of business.

"The new regulations will be especially hard on livestock farmers," he said, "and that's our market. If you drive the livestock farmers out of business, you are going to drive the grain farmers out."

Councell said that "farming is becoming less profitable, and some of the older farmers are saying, `The hell with it.' They feel that they can't keep fighting the state.

"If the state wants to keep farmland and open spaces, it has to do something to support farmers."

James Hanson, an agriculture economist with the University of Maryland, expressed concern about the state's environment in the future if the farmland decline continues.

Hanson said economic forces are driving agriculture out of the state and that could have a serious impact on the quality of life here.

If the trend continues, Hanson said, "Maryland could become one big Rockville Pike."

In contrast to what's happening in the Midwest, Hanson said, when state farmers quit farming the land is frequently taken out of agriculture. He blamed this situation in part on contrasting economic forces in Maryland. While the state's overall economy is booming, agriculture is struggling, putting increased pressures on farmers to sell their land and park their tractors.

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