The Ultimate Farmland Preservation Tour, a group of 55 officials from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, came to Carroll County Friday to see how it has permanently preserved nearly 40,000 acres of farmland and become a national leader in doing so.
"I came here to learn as much as I can about alternatives to development," said Mark Seeley, a Michigan farmer and teacher. "We want to keep what we have, use it the best way we can and convince people that once a farm is gone, it's gone for good."
Seeley manages a 100-acre farm in Detroit that is owned by the school system and used to teach students about the value of agriculture.
"It is really impressive that Carroll was able to do this in an area so close to Washington," Seeley said.
In 1979, Carroll set a goal of preserving 100,000 acres over a 40-year span. It applied for state preservation funds long before neighboring counties had their programs ready.
"Preservation takes vision, commitment, leadership, support and funding," said Ralph Robertson, a Westminster farmer. "We want growth, but controls on where it is and how it impacts every citizen."
Bill Powel, Carroll's longtime preservation director, detailed the history of the county's efforts, adding some of his own to the narrative. Powel grew up on a dairy farm in Howard County, where there were once 100 such operations.
"There are probably only a few dairy farms left in Howard today," he said. "Most are essentially built out into 3-acre residential lots."
He bought a farm in Carroll about 20 years ago and is grateful he chose a county that leads the state in preservation. "This county is known for ag zoning, permanent preservation and strengthening its ag industry," said Powel.
The five-day tour also stopped at farms in Harford and Montgomery counties and several in southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. More than 850 people have made the trip since the tour began its twice-yearly rounds in 1998. Every tour has visited Carroll.
"Carroll County has accomplished a lot of preservation and is doing whatever it can to make agriculture profitable," said Scott Everett, central Great Lakes director for the American Farmland Trust and a tour organizer. "We wanted to see how and what has been done. People on this trip hear the story from the people who did it and see that this is not an unsolvable problem."
Many Midwestern states face "a huge challenge from urban development that is adversely affecting farm communities," Everett said. "It helps a great deal looking at Carroll County 30 years after it started preserving to determine what will work in Michigan. We are not here to copycat but to make our system as good as we can."
Preservation programs are just getting off the ground in many states, like Michigan, where a $25 million pilot preservation program recently drew 1,300 applicants. In the first year, the state preserved 13,000 acres on 55 farms.
"Farm ground is precious, and we can't lose it," said Betty Osborn, who accompanied her husband, Lowell Osborn, a Fountain County, Ind., commissioner and third-generation farmer. "As the population grows, so will the need for farms."
Indiana has no statewide preservation program and faces tremendous development pressure in its metropolitan areas, said state Sen. David C. Ford.
"We came here to see what will fit our community and to incorporate them into a plan," said Ford. "This is all about a win-win solution that is voluntary with incentives and local control."