A harvest of questions

Tour: Visitors from fast-growing areas study Howard's approach to farming on suburban land not zoned for agricultural use.

July 25, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Four dozen people from Northeast rural enclaves stepped off a bus yesterday in search of agricultural know-how.

They were visiting Howard County, where no land is zoned "agricultural."

What attracted them was the nature of Howard's suburbs, where farmers ply their trade on thousands of acres tucked between subdivisions.

The out-of-towners from growing places hoped to catch a glimpse of the future for their communities - and how to handle it.

"We're further down the timeline in development than some of the regions we work with; there's lessons to be learned in land use and encroachment," said Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "The other side of that is a tremendous opportunity for marketing."

Without fanfare, the county has established itself as a tourist destination for people interested in land use, helped by its proximity to the nation's capital. Many are coming to see Columbia. But a growing number want to take a look at agriculture on the urban fringe.

They're coming from Pennsylvania, from the Midwest, even from overseas.

"We get them from all over the place," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director. "It's very diverse, from adjoining counties to a lot of Chinese delegations. ... Because of our location between Baltimore and Washington, we're on the cutting edge of what makes a viable urban agriculture."

Yesterday's tourists were members of the Northeast region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, which is holding its summer meeting this week at a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The group's annual farm tour is usually in a more rural area, said Mark Davis, an agronomist with the USDA's Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab in Beltsville. But Davis, one of the tour organizers, wanted to focus on marketing this time - a good fit for a county with a quarter of a million people to whom farmers can directly sell their wares.

First stop yesterday: Triadelphia Lake View Farm in Glenelg, once a dairy operation, now purveyor of pick-your-own strawberries, farmers' market vegetables, Christmas trees and delivered-to-your-door hay.

Visitors wanted to know how - and why - its husband-and-wife owners jumped from the traditional to the new.

"The environment, I guess, pushed us in this direction," said Linda Brown, whose family's 86-acre operation straddles a road peppered with huge suburban homes. "We wanted to save the farm. We wanted to keep it in the family. ... We're both full-time on the farm now, and we're making it."

University of Vermont professor Fred Magdoff, coordinator of the sustainable agriculture program's Northeast region, said farmers all over are dealing with suburban pressures and facing the same choice: Change or fail.

"You've got a lot of people nearby - a lot of opportunities to sell direct," he added. "Many farmers are going to have to go that direction."

Larriland Farm, next on the tour, switched to pick-your-own about 30 years ago, so its second-generation managers know what they're doing. With 285 acres as his backdrop, Guy Moore described the challenges of birds, deer and customers who eat the produce as they pick.

You have to set your prices to take that into account, said Moore, who runs the business with his siblings.

"What we sell is recreation, and make no mistake about it," he said.

Jane Tabb, whose family farms 2,300 acres in West Virginia, asked about hayride-tour prices because she is thinking about diversifying. Jefferson County, her home, is in the early stages of the rapid development Howard has seen.

Tabb's husband is attending the conference, but she drove out just for the tour. As a county commissioner, she is searching for a model of growth management.

Michael Keilty, an organic foods farmer from northwestern Connecticut, knows what it's like to produce in a land-pressured area. But as he bumped along in a tractor-pulled wagon past Moore's apple trees, Keilty said he has no doubt that agriculture can learn to coexist with suburbia.

"We're just beginning to tap how that can happen," he said.

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