Effort to save the farms to start with 1 1/2 -year study

Stemming the loss of agricultural land

Maryland agriculture

June 20, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Concerned about the future of Maryland's largest industry, the state plans an 18-month study of agriculture as the first step toward developing a strategy to preserve and promote farming, sources said yesterday.

The study is in response to a request from Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, who wants the state Agriculture Department to develop a 20-year plan to safeguard Maryland's farm industry.

"We want to start the study as quickly as possible, hopefully this summer," said S. Patrick McMillan, a special assistant to state Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts.

The work is to be directed by the University of Maryland's Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Policy at College Park and is scheduled to be completed by December 2001.

"It will focus on a number of issues," said Bruce Gardner, director of the policy center, "including land availability, labor availability, residential and commercial sprawl, and water quality regulations and their impact on agriculture. ... It will look at the plight of the dairy industry, examining both federal policy and Northeast dairy compact."

Gardner and officials of the university and Agriculture Department will brief the Environmental Matter Committee today in Annapolis.

Maryland lost 100 farms and 50,000 acres of farmland last year, the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service reported in April.

Ray Garibay, head of the statistical service, blamed the decline on urban sprawl and noted that the drop in the number of farms in Maryland was in contrast with an increase in the number of farms for the nation as a whole last year.

At the end of 1999, 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. The decline has been 5 percent

Agriculture, including the production of food and fiber, is a $17.8 billion-a-year business in Maryland, sustaining more than 400,000 jobs, the Agricultural Statistics service concluded in a study completed in December 1998.

Fiber covers the making of fabric, clothing and footwear from plants, animal fiber and hides.

Maryland's farming industry has a big impact on other sectors of the state's economy, including retailing. Agriculture is linked to 130,632 jobs in retail trade, generating $3.7 million in annual sales.

"The new study will look at the future of agriculture as a commercial enterprise and Maryland," said Gardner.

"Hopefully, we can find a way of reversing the trend of losing farms and farmland," added McMillan.

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