Equine agriculture takes the reins

Trends: Thoroughbred operations make up a fast-growing industry in Harford County.

October 26, 2003|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHEN PEOPLE think of Harford County, the horse industry might not immediately come to mind. But large commercial thoroughbred operations, as well as an influx of people into the county over the past 10 years, has built this segment of the area's agriculture.

Growth in the horse industry is something John Sullivan, the county's agriculture director, likes to point out.

"Equine and horticulture are on the upward trend. They are the fastest-growing agricultural industries in the county," Sullivan said. "There are more horses in Harford County now than cows. That's a lot different than a decade ago."

Harford County ranked fifth in the state with 7,930, according to the state's first equine census.

Statewide, about 87,100 equines were counted last year, including horses, ponies, donkeys and mules.

The survey was conducted by the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, in cooperation with the Maryland Horse Industry Board and Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The average value per equine head in Harford County was $9,894.

This relatively high figure indicates the prevalence of race breeds and show horses in the area, said Norman Bennett, state statistician for the statistics service.

More than 18,000 acres are devoted to raising equines in Harford County.

On these acres, the survey indicated, 2,160 people (owners and family members) were involved in equine activities.

No estimates are available for the number of hired workers or total number of people employed in the industry.

"Those horse people are part of the agriculture industry because they are buying feed, hay, straw and are contributing to local county economy in many ways," Sullivan said.

The survey also showed that the average inventory value by county was influenced greatly by the number of racing and breeding operations in each county. Again, Harford County ranked fifth, with 1,360 equine operations.

Mike Pons, chairman of the Harford County Agriculture Board and business manager for Country Life Farm in Bel Air, agrees that the horse industry in Harford County is doing well. Country Life Farm is the oldest thoroughbred farm in Maryland, Pons said.

"You not only have horses with businesses like [Country Life Farm], but there's so many pleasure horses, riding horses and fox hunting" horses, Pons said. "This whole area is so rich in this tradition. I think everybody's big dream is to someday have a small barn and horse with a couple of pastures."

Pons adds that if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed slots legislation is passed, it would give a boost to the agricultural industry in the state by creating jobs and incentives for horse breeders, trainers and jockeys and would increase the value and profit potential of farmland.

Benefit the state

"We are anxiously looking forward to it," Pons said. "It will probably happen sooner than later. We are talking significant sums of money that would benefit the whole state."

The state as a whole is struggling compared with neighboring states, says William K. Boniface, with Bonita Farms in Darlington and vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"Surrounding states have created incentive programs that are making it more and more difficult for us to attract business from those states," Boniface said. "But we still have a better infrastructure, a network of farms with experienced people that have been doing this for generations. That gives us an advantage."

Bonita Farms in Darlington is a thoroughbred breeding and training facility.

Lead the effort

But the experience only goes so far. That is why the Maryland horse industry has stepped up efforts to get favorable legislation passed.

"It's important for us to be at the forefront to lead this effort," Boniface said. "If we can get some things done legislatively, we can continue to be the leader in this industry that we have been for years."

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