Harford farmers are finding new ways to live off the land

Change: Offering everything from tours to specialty products, they are shifting gears to entice the growing residential population.

October 27, 2002|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Every day, a steady stream of traffic passes by the 215-acre Harford County farm where David and Kate Dallam are milking cows, gathering eggs, making milk soap and getting cheese and other products ready to sell at area farmers' markets.

"I saw 25 cars go by in the last minute [on Route 543]," Kate Dallam said. "We're in the heart of suburbia. Our farm is right on the edge of Bel Air's development envelope."

Farmers all over Harford County are feeling the pressure of residential and commercial development as the population swells, farmland is sold for housing and the area changes from an agricultural community to a bedroom community.

Some are getting out of farming altogether. Others are enlarging their operations, farming rented land and buying acreage when they can in an effort to make a profit through volume.

Some work the farm full time, relying on a family member's off-the-farm job for supplemental income. Many farm part time, depending on full-time jobs for primary income.

The county Office of Economic Development estimates that Harford has about 600 full-time and 600 part-time farmers, including hobbyists with a few head of cattle or horses.

"I know that we're going to continue to lose farms," Kate Dallam said. "Farms that stay in business are probably going to move more toward niche marketing. They're going to do direct sales to consumers. That's why we're trying to reach out to the 6,000 people who go past our farm every day."

With change has come opportunity, and some farmers are looking to the growing population around them to help make their farms more profitable in tough economic times.

They're supplementing their income from traditional farming by opening their grain, beef and dairy operations to tour groups for a fee. They're offering hayrides, corn mazes, roadside fruit and vegetable stands and pick-your-own produce sales. They're selling "value-added" niche market products -- cut flowers, trees and shrubs, goat meat, honey, cheese, lamb, wine, bison meat, cider, Christmas trees and home-grown beef -- directly to the consumer for a higher profit. One farm sells the embryos of its highly productive milking cows worldwide.

"There are 2 million people within an hour's drive of us," said John Sullivan III, agricultural coordinator for the county Office of Economic Development. "The consumers are here."

So even with all the development, the county's agricultural tradition lives on. Verdant countryside is to be found, especially to the north and west of targeted growth areas along the Interstate 95 and Route 24 corridors. And people like the Dallams are holding on to farms that have been in their families for generations.

For 12 years, Kate Dallam worked for the Harford Soil Conservation District while her husband worked full time, milking 60 cows twice a day on their farm, Broom's Bloom Dairy in Creswell. But she was spending a lot for child care for their three daughters and was anxious to stay at home. So she decided to quit her job and try direct marketing at farmers' markets, starting with cheese made from the dairy's milk.

"The business started as an experiment, and it is going very well," she said. "With falling milk prices, it has been a significant part of our income this summer."

She also sells eggs gathered from 50 free-range hens and soap made from milk and olive oil. She is raising market hogs for sausage, and she and her brother breed ewes on her parents' 150-acre Churchville family farm and sell frozen lamb.

Churchville beef cattle farmer Ned Sayre has formed a cooperative with other county farmers to sell Deer Creek frozen beef products in small portions directly to consumers at farmers' markets and from a freezer case at a feed store in Bel Air.

"This is our first venture into retail," said Sayre, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau and a partner in his family's 300-acre Waffle Hill Farm. "Customers get a local product, and we get to cut out the big chunk of every dollar we usually lose to the middleman."

While the increased population has brought economic opportunities, it has also brought conflicts with newcomers who enjoy the rural view but are not enchanted with the less attractive realities of farming: pesticide and herbicide spraying, odors, flies, loose farm animals and slow-moving farm equipment on the roads.

"We'd like people to understand that we're out here trying to make a living just like they are," Sayre said. "We are stewards of the ground, and we take that job very seriously."

About a third of the county's estimated 281,839 acres remains farmland -- a figure that Harford County officials are working to maintain. More than 30,000 acres have been permanently preserved for agricultural use through county and state programs that pay farmers to give up their development rights.

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