Md. losing farmland faster than U.S. norm

Two-year, $200,000 study lists causes, no solutions

September 11, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Maryland continues to lose farms and farmland at a faster rate than neighboring states - and the United States as a whole - causing concern that the future of agriculture is at risk in large portions of the state.

This is one of the findings of a two-year, $200,000 study by the University of Maryland, College Park looking at the economic situation and the prospects for agriculture in the state.

The report projects that agriculture will continue to give way to suburban sprawl over the next 10 years and the state will likely lose 400 of its 12,400 farms and 40,000 acres of farmland.

The study is to be released this morning at the monthly meeting of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, an advisory group to the governor.

State officials have long referred to agriculture as Maryland's largest industry, generating $17 billion a year in sales and employing 400,000.

A narrower definition, looking only at agriculture production and services and food processing, puts farming's economic impact on the state at about $8 billion a year, providing jobs for more than 70,000 people.

"This will be the base from which a planning process will be launched to help halt the long decline of agriculture in the state," said Bradley H. Powers, deputy secretary of agriculture.

"We will take this report, along with a group of good people, put them in a room and let them come up with a five-year plan to guide agriculture in the direction it needs to go to be profitable.

"If we don't have profitable farms, we are going to have fewer farmers and fewer farm supply stores. We can reach a point where you lose the critical mass that is essential to viable agriculture. That's a major concern."

Other findings of the study by the university's Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Policy include:

Many hog and dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years. Acreage of vegetables for processing is declining, and tobacco is on the verge of disappearing.

Agriculture is the single biggest factor in the economy of many areas of the state.

Farm household income, including off-farm income, compares favorably with that of neighboring states and is well above the U.S. average.

The average age of farm operators has been rising for two decades and is now 54. The high price of land, because of development pressures, makes it nearly impossible for young people to move into farming.

Poultry production is a critical part of the industry, accounting for about 30 percent of farm sales. So state-level policies that can promote the continued viability of broiler production in Maryland are perhaps the most important agricultural policies the state can implement.

There is widespread feeling that farmers are not appreciated as they once were. This, along with low economic returns, engenders a pessimism that could hasten the industry's decline.

The collapse of the Port of Baltimore's only grain elevator from storm damage in June 2001 is costing central Maryland corn and soybean growers $25 million a year in lost revenue.

The 94-page report did not list recommendations.

But Bruce L. Gardner, the university economist who guided the study, offered a few suggestions during an interview. He said that although agriculture is a big part of the state's economy, farmers feel that they don't have a friend in the State House. He said the governor "should treat agriculture like any other business. The state now tends to be a little more adversarial toward farming."

As an example of farmers feeling unwanted, he said there "was a rush to judgment" to blame farmers for the outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida in 1997 that resulted in the closing of three waterways into the Chesapeake Bay, triggered panic over the safety of Maryland seafood and disrupted the state's tourism industry.

"It looks a little less now that farmers were to blame," he said.

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