The high cost of land has been a transforming factor in Howard County agriculture, leading to an increase in smaller farm operations and forcing farmers to be more creative in marketing their products, according to a recent economic survey.
Local agriculture, concentrated in the rural western part of the county, "looks increasingly like a tapestry of small farms involved in direct marketing enterprises such as turf, nursery horticulture products, fruits and vegetables, agritourism, and horses," says the introduction to the Howard County Agricultural Production and Marketing Survey 2003.
"There's been a transformational shift," said Ginger Myers, an agricultural marketing specialist who compiled the findings of the survey, which was released last week by the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
Much of the farmland is still being used for traditional commodity crops, and those farmers often use wholesalers or auctions, Myers said. But the rising price of land in Howard County, along with other pressures, is leading to smaller operations, with farmers seeking a high return on their products.
Farmers are turning to on-farm sales, farmers' markets, subscription services, agritourism and other ways to sell goods directly to customers, Myers said.
"For the small guys to make it, they have to find niche markets and market directly," said Tony Evans, coordinator of farmers' market programs with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "You see more and more of it. It's the wave of the future."
The survey analyzes questionnaires returned by 102 farmers. A total of 865 were sent to people who own agricultural land or are known to rent land for farming. The responses represent approximately 27.6 percent of the county's agricultural land.
According to the study, farms that market directly to the public receive up to 80 cents per dollar spent because costs for transportation, packaging and advertising are eliminated or reduced.
Some other findings include:
Just over 85 percent of the responding farms were less than 100 acres.
More farmland is used to grow grain than any other crop, but horses and nursery/horticulture crops are the fastest-growing segments of the agricultural industry in Howard County.
Farms in the county are becoming increasingly multifunctional, such as dairy farms that grow and sell grain, and vegetable farms that offer pick-your-own pumpkins.
Jim and Linda Brown used to have a dairy farm in Glenelg, but they switched their Triadelphia Lake View Farm to a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers that they sell through a farm stand on their property, a booth at the farmers' market and a subscription service with three other farms.
They also offer farm activities such as corn mazes and a chance to see farm animals, and they allow customers to pick strawberries and pumpkins and cut Christmas trees.
"This way we have a little more control," Linda Brown said. "We can diversify."
Eight to 12 vendors set up twice a week at the farmers' market, but copious rainfall has hit the market hard, reducing the crops available to sell and keeping attendance low, said Linda Brown. But she remains optimistic.
"It will all come together when the sun starts shining," she said.
The Howard County Growers' subscription service, which includes four farms and a bread company, has fared better. It has 116 customers who paid up front to pick up a bag of locally produced herbs and food, including products such as honey and jam, every week for 16 weeks. Two of the farms also have their own subscription opportunities.
The key, farmers say, is to offer options to the customer base nearby.
"One of the things I thought was really interesting was that development is seen as the top pressure ... by farmers, but the growing customer base is also seen as the greatest opportunity," said Caragh Fitzgerald, an educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.
"That tension between opportunity and challenge is just so prevalent in our farm communities right now," she said.
The study also emphasized the important role agriculture plays in the county economy.
Total agricultural sales -- including traditional farm products, the horse industry and the horticulture industry -- are calculated at well over $100 million in the study. But three-quarters of the farms responding to the survey generate less than $10,000 each year, reflecting the significant number of small farms, part-time farmers and families relying on off-farm income.
In addition, according to the findings, Howard farmers purchase more than half of their supplies and equipment locally.
The study concludes with recommendations and indicators to gauge future performance by agriculture operations.
As for the current snapshot offered by the survey, Myers said the credit goes to the farmers.
"Our agriculture community is very alert to the changes and receptive to adopting and attempting something new," Myers said. "They're risk-takers. They're truly entrepreneurs."