Farmers face pressures as agriculture declines

Agriculture: Fickle weather, price drops and development combine to threaten a vital industry.

April 25, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dwight Baugher pulled his pickup, thick with late-winter mud, along the rutted path that cuts through his family's orchards.

He opened the window and sliced a pointed finger through the cold air in an arc over the low horizon of an apple orchard.

"It's when you first see the red," he said. He corrected himself. "No. You know, the first crop we do is peas. It's when you first see the green shoots, the buds. Then you know. It's all been worth it."

What's been worth it to Baugher and about 1,000 other Carroll County farmers is preserving what has long been the life's blood of the county: farming.

It has been no easy task. Farmers have struggled against fickle weather, a tropical storm and a drought before that. They've tried to stave off the sting of plummeting commodity prices and the pressure to sell the family's legacy to developers.

Some haven't made it; the number of farms, especially dairy farms, has dropped steadily over the years. Despite the weather, the recession and countless other worries, farmers have retooled, adapted and diversified to create opportunities to keep the county's agriculture ideal alive.

"We'd be crazy if we didn't," said Baugher, 29. "We need to eat, too."

Farms make up more than 54 percent of the county, and with a $71.27 million market value for crops and livestock, farming is Carroll County's biggest -- yet one of its most threatened -- industries.

"Farming here is the biggest this side of the bay," said Bryan Butler, a Carroll County extension educator at the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. "It, I hope, is going nowhere."

Some farmers, like the Baughers, have had to focus on one sector, such as fruit and vegetables, and create outlets to sell them.

"When you look prior to the 1970s, you had very few farmers grow just grain and making a living," Butler said. "They had dairy and beef, too. Now, a lot of farms specialize -- just grain or just hogs."

Because commodity prices didn't rise with the cost of living -- which included paying mortgages, and buying feed, equipment and fertilizer -- specialization is often the most efficient way to make a living, he said.

Others have had to rent more land and plant new crops to bring in new revenue. Many farmers in the dairy industry, the county's biggest agricultural sector and the one that has been the hardest hit, have turned to this option.

"There will be people who will tell you after World War II, if they raised three good wheat crops, they could have paid for the farm," Butler said.

But with farmland selling for more than $3,700 an acre, and the average value of farmland and buildings at more than $568,000, "It doesn't even come close anymore."

Today's farms, he added, are not the storybook farms of yesteryear.

Baugher's family has owned the 600-acre Baugher's Orchard and Farms in Westminster since 1904. Like most farms of earlier generations, Baugher's offered a little of everything: some dairy, some grain, some vegetables.

But to sell the produce, Dwight Baugher's grandfather opened a restaurant on Main Street more than 50 years ago. When times were tough on the farm, the restaurant brought in money, Baugher said.

Later, the family phased out its dairy operations to focus on the more lucrative fruit and vegetable market. Although the Baughers grow everything from peas to cherries, their main crop is apples, in 25 varieties.

Grocery store chains don't want Baugher's produce because the farm can't supply identical produce to 50 or 60 stores at once, he explained. Instead, as more people moved into the county, the Baughers expanded their operations to tap into that market. They later opened a bakery, a fruit stand, a pick-your-own operation and a petting zoo.

"It's all `agritainment,'" Baugher said.

But it brings in the people -- and the cash. Although Baugher would not disclose profits, his family's farm is considered one of the most lucrative in the county.

Carroll County is not alone in its efforts to preserve its agricultural sector.

A 2002 economic impact study from the University of Maryland's Center for Agricultural and Natural Resources questioned the economic viability of the state's farming industry.

It noted the decline in the number of farms, particularly hog and dairy farms, a weak market and increased regulation as threats to the industry's stability.

To complicate the picture, the age of farm owners is increasing -- the average age is 54 -- and there is a dwindling supply of young adults interested in replacing them.

Still, the report pointed out that agriculture is a major factor in the state's economy, and the single biggest factor in many counties, such as Carroll. As a whole, farming and its related industries in 1999 accounted for $5 billion, or 3 percent, of the gross state product.

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