Dwindling farmland fetching top dollar

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May 07, 2000|By Mike Burns

HOW MUCH land does a man need?"

That was the perplexing question asked in the classic Tolstoy short story of the same name.

The central character, Pakhom, eventually found his answer the hard way.

Land represented wealth in the 19th-century Russian story, land for farming, of course. And so it does today.

City dwellers must have looked with envy at the recent federal Agriculture Department survey showing that Maryland agricultural land was the fifth most expensive in the nation. A farm acre in the Free State averaged $3,500 last year, compared with a mere $1,050 as the national (continental) average.

That was surprising, in a state not generally recognized for its farming output or for the deep alluvial richness of its soils.

Not only that, but the price of an agricultural acre in Maryland rose twice as fast as the national average, spurting more than 6 percent last year.

Dubious returns

This for a plot of dirt that in recent years has brought farmers two devastating droughts, record low commodity prices in times of abundance, and always a load of debt.

The reasons for high-priced farmland hereabouts don't have much to do with the property's agricultural productivity.

Demand from housing developers seeking to turn greenfields into homes is the main market force.

Accelerating price demand is the relative shortage of land available between the two urban centers of Baltimore and Washington.

And there's the added attraction of using fertile farmland for development: It's cleared and usually flat enough and permeable enough to easily accommodate development.

"Farming is competing against home building and that's driving up land prices," explains Ray Garibay, director of the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.

Sprawl factor

That's why the national leaders in farmland value are smaller northeastern states, similarly situated near metropolitan centers that have an insatiable appetite for suburban sprawl.

New Jersey contains the costliest acreage, at an average $7,100 a pop, followed by Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

So, understandably, the more expensive stretches of Maryland farmland are in areas of the most intensive housing development: Montgomery and Howard counties.

As The Sun's Ted Shelsby reported, a dairy farmer in Silver Run is regularly offered $10,000 an acre for his farm. At least for about 100 acres of his 167-acre spread.

That's the prime property on which upscale developers would like to build 11 new homes.

With new houses to the right and left of his farmhouse, farmer Lawrence Meeks is sitting on a black-dirt gold mine.

So far, the northern Carroll County farmer has resisted the lure and remains committed to agriculture.

Costly dream

But, as he explained, Mr. Meeks rents most of the 3,000 acres he farms in crops and livestock. To even dream of buying that much land would be too costly, at today's prices.

To be sure, Carroll is trying hard to preserve its farming lands.

The county's master land use plan calls for permanently preserving 100,000 acres within 20 years. Owners are paid for easements to keep their acres in agriculture, the equivalent of buying the land's "development rights."

Last year, the state average easement price was nearly $2,300 per acre in Carroll. You subtract that from $3,500 or $4,000 an acre and you have a basic farming-use cost of the land at between $1,200 and $1,500.

That's not too far from what farmland goes for in areas where there is perceptibly little development pressure, like out in the middle of nowhere Nebraska.

Practitioner's plaint

Still, farming wouldn't be farming if the practitioners of the ancient art did not complain.

And they note that easement prices for good land, the kind favored by the preservation program, is well below the developers' price. (That is where zoning laws come in, limiting the amount of land that can be plowed into subdivisions, creating the market shortage and raising development prices.)

As of now, Carroll has set aside about 31,500 acres in permanent easements.

Another 16,000 acres have been placed in preservation districts, an interim freeze on development while the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation decides which eligible farms it wants to buy and which owners want to accept the offered easement contracts.

Not just in Carroll, but all over the United States, the amount of land in farming continues to shrink. Farmers know they have to produce more efficiently to survive. That means bigger farms but far fewer of them. And, ultimately, less land that is needed for production.

It's a very rare day indeed when someone turns an abandoned factory complex, or a platted subdivision, back into farmland.

Oh, yes. How much land did poor Pakhom finally need?

Just a plot 6 feet by 3 feet -- by 6 feet deep.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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