Farmers worry about future of the land

Concerns expressed at a state hearing

July 13, 2000|By Dahlia Naqib | Dahlia Naqib,SUN STAFF

As Howard County loses farmland to development and traditional farms are being replaced by smaller "alternative" ones, the future of agriculture in the county is being questioned.

In response, county agriculture officials held a public hearing last night at Circle D Farm in Woodbine during which farmers voiced their concerns to the Maryland Agriculture Commission.

The hearing came after members of the commission toured small farms that are typical of Howard County but unique to conventional state agriculture. The county hopes to emphasize the viability and staying power of its increasingly smaller farms.

"The agriculture commission needs to know it's not just looking at the Eastern Shore and Carroll County" when considering major farmland in Maryland, said Caragh Fitzgerald, the Howard County coordinator of agriculture and natural resources. "[They] can't forget that farmers are here and have needs too. I want to make sure that Howard County farmers realize they are still on the radar screen."

The commission goes on "farm tours" of two agricultural areas in Maryland twice each year and covers all of the major farmland within five years. The 23 members of the commission are appointed by the governor and advise Maryland's secretary of agriculture.

The areas deemed worthy of a visit are determined by recommendations from the Maryland Co- operative Extension.

Howard's farmers have responded to development and economic pressures by shifting from historically large grain and dairy farms to other more profitable methods of "alternative" farming, which includes nurseries, smaller plots of land, the boarding of horses and growing high-profit crops such as fruits and vegetables to sell at farmers' markets.

"Howard County is an outstanding example of adapting to change," said Henry Passi, the commission chairman. "If you cannot adapt to change, you simply cannot make it."

Howard's farms are shrinking and disappearing, making it difficult for farmers to earn a living these days. It's getting especially difficult for them to turn down developers' offers for their land.

Farmland in Howard decreased by 5,000 acres between 1992 and 1997, and the average size of a Howard County farm is 128 acres, compared to the state average of 178 acres. "I don't want people to write off agriculture in Howard County," Fitzgerald said. "Just because there are houses going up, it doesn't mean that there isn't farmland."

About 20,000 acres of farmland in the county have been safeguarded from development under a preservation program under which the county pays farmers to keep their land agricultural.

Dale Hough, chairman of Howard County's Agricultural Land Preservation Board, said the goal is so have 30,000 acres in preservation, but the $15 million in the program isn't enough to meet it.

The farmers who have chosen to preserve their land are also facing difficulties with inconsistencies between state and county preservation programs. The older state programs are not as sensitive to the modern farmer, said commission member Martha Clark.

Labor is another huge problem for Howard farmers. The work is hard, and pay is low.

Jim and Linda Brown's farm on Triadelphia Road in Glenelg, the first stop on the tour, was a conventional dairy farm, but they sold some land and adapted when milk prices fell and land prices rose.

And now they can't find help to trim Christmas trees or harvest perishable fruits and vegetables.

"Farmers cannot afford to compete with McDonald's," said Passi. "[Labor] is such a tough problem that we don't quite know how to handle it, but we're tuned into it."

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