Michigan might have more than 100 times the farmland Harford County has, but that doesn't mean the Great Lakes State can't learn about land use here.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm made a stop for dinner at Highland Presbyterian Church in Street on Friday during an Ultimate Farmland Preservation tour sponsored by several farm groups. The five-day trip is taking participants through Montgomery, Carroll and Harford counties, as well as parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
With agricultural preservation programs dating back more than two decades, Maryland can be a model for places like Michigan, now trying to save its rural areas from overdevelopment, Granholm said.
"Clearly, Maryland is so far ahead of many places," Granholm said. "I want to take home [Maryland's] best practices."
Harford County has about 94,000 acres of farmland, according to John Sullivan, the county's agricultural coordinator. About a third of that has been permanently preserved, and another third is preserved under five-year blocks, he said.
The county moves quickly in preserving farmland, adding about 20 farms a year to the roster of preserved land, said Bill Amoss, the administrator of the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Program. That means about 2,000 additional acres a year that won't be developed.
That speed is important in Harford, where land prices are rising sharply, Amoss said.
"If you can buy [farms] now, it's so much cheaper," he said, adding that some farm real estate in the county has doubled in value in the past five years.
By contrast, Michigan has closer to 10 million acres of farmland, said Wayne H. Wood, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, in a phone interview. His group would like see about half that acreage in preservation programs over the next several years.
Michigan has preserved about 14,000 acres of its farmland.
Maryland can be a model to Michigan, said Jim Fuerstenau, executive director of the Michigan Farmland and Community Alliance, a nonprofit affiliated with the Michigan Farm Bureau.
"Maryland's been in the business of [preservation] for 20 years before Michigan," he said by telephone. The governor's visit would allow her to "see the effect over time" of such a long-running program.
"I'm really pleased the governor could see Maryland," he said.
Preservation is particularly timely in Michigan now because the state is grappling with suburban sprawl, with families taking chunks out of the rural landscape in their flight from urban centers, Wood said.
Farmland is attractive to developers because the land has already been cleared, meaning construction can start sooner. And since land farther away from the city tends to be cheaper, even land not directly adjacent to urban areas is at risk, Wood added.
It's an uphill battle, but Wood thinks Michigan has a chance.
"I'm optimistic, but of course, I'm a farmer, so I'm always optimistic," Wood said. "But I really believe we have the things in the right position."
Some of Maryland's "best practices" that Granholm spoke of during her visit to Street include funding the purchase of development rights. "We have to think creatively" in finding the money to buy development rights, she said.
And there are other ways to boost the benefits to farmers besides outright payment, she said, noting the role that incentives like tax credits and, in some cases, tax write-offs, can play in persuading farmers not to develop their land.
"It's not the cold, clammy hand of government" regulation, she said, laughing.
Ultimately, she said, agricultural preservation is a "win-win situation." Even developers benefit, she said, as local governments lure developers into certain areas by creating and strengthening urban infrastructures like roads and sewers.
Such clustering of urban areas, or smart growth, can create balanced demands for homes, she said.
She said she hoped that her state could now begin to move forward on its own smart growth policies.
Other Michigan lawmakers added their praise to Granholm's.
"Maryland is doing it the best in the nation," said Tom Meyer, a member of Michigan's House of Representatives. "I wanted to see it firsthand."
Meyer stressed the immediate need for agricultural preservation, but noted that the process can be a long one, requiring patience and resolve.
"The biggest thing is you're not going to do it overnight," Meyer said. "But you've got to do the first one right away."