Flight over Delmarva's life, promise, loss

ON THE BAY

Corridor: In the peninsula's three states lies the largest intact block of farmland between Maine and North Carolina.

July 02, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I THINK I understand. You're trying to develop the Garden of Eden here.

- Jim Mosley, U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary, visiting the Eastern Shore

And why not? Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the soils and waters of the Delmarva Peninsula, comprising counties of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, have supported humans since the earliest North American inhabitation, thousands of years before the Chesapeake Bay formed. That's a lot of pleasant living.

Mosley was at the Easton airport to board a small plane with Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest for his first overview of Delmarva.

For Gilchrest, the Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, it was one more step in his five-year quest to establish the Delmarva Conservation Corridor, a permanently protected swath of farm, forest and wetlands stretching 200 miles from Wilmington, Del., to Cape Charles, Va., from the Chesapeake to the Atlantic.

President Bush signed legislation establishing the corridor into law in 2002, but the funding - $250 million, to be matched by the three states -remains mired. Department of Agriculture lawyers say it needs a new appropriation. Congress argues that it can tap existing federal farm-bill billions.

"We need USDA to signify that what we have here is worth preserving ... a positive gesture, a statement," Gilchrest said. "Give us a seed, we'll cultivate it."

It was a fit day to savor the Shore from aloft - June 21, summer solstice, longest light of the year, the air cool and clear to the horizons - a day to think big about the future of the largest intact block of farmland remaining between Maine and North Carolina.

Leaving Easton, we circled eastward over Delaware's grain and poultry complexes, south along Atlantic barrier islands and the Pocomoke River piney woods, across the tomato and potato fields of the two Virginia Eastern Shore counties, then back north along the marshes of Tangier Sound and the deepwater, lush-edged coves of Talbot and Queen Anne's counties.

I grew up roaming Delmarva in the 1950s, and now it seems a suburb by comparison. But I was gratified to see how much remains lush and green and open - "carpeted with farms, stitched with forests and buttoned with rural fishing villages," as Gilchrest likes to say.

It's also clear, looking down at hundreds upon hundreds of bright, tin-roofed chicken houses, extensive drainage ditches, commercial clear-cuts and grain processing complexes, that this is a hard-working landscape.

"Pasture art," observed my seatmate, Clayton Courter, Virginia's agriculture commissioner. "That's the farming a lot of the public loves to envision - a green patch with a pig, a chicken, a cow and a white fence - but that's not today's agriculture."

Threat and promise exist in Delmarva's unique placement as a verdant jewel amid the Boston-to-Richmond, Va., megalopolis, said Gilchrest.

Development is encroaching. More than 200,000 acres of the peninsula's 1.8 million acres of farms have disappeared in the past couple of decades, outstripping efforts that have preserved about 126,000 acres.

And a new, heightened wave of development has rolled onto the peninsula, with builders persuading small towns - Trappe, Denton, Queenstown, Cape Charles, Va., Bridgeville, Del., Cambridge - to consider 1,000 to 3,000 home projects that will increase their populations manyfold.

But there is also a lucrative future for an intact growing region like Delmarva that lies within a day's drive of nearly one-third of the nation's population.

Making farms more profitable is a big part of the Conservation Corridor's pitch, and a reason it has attracted support from farmers on up to top state agriculture officials.

John Hall, an agriculture extension agent from Maryland, has been working with farmers on value-added approach - from organic and nongenetically modified crops to concepts such as "identity preservation," a guarantee of purity that lets buyers of specialty and custom-grown foods trace them to the farm and even field of origin.

"Growing food, not feed," is Hall's motto for Delmarva. The traditional raising of grain for chicken feed doesn't have the profit margins needed, he says.

Other promising avenues include long-term contracts with vegetable growers. A key, one Delaware agriculture official said, is "for investors to have the assurance that farmland here has a guaranteed future."

The USDA's Mosley comes from Indiana, where Delmarva's agriculture production wouldn't make a dent, but he seemed impressed. He also left some food for thought: "If you build any more bridges over here," he said, "you're going to be in trouble."

And he asked if all this farming next to so much water was allowing too much pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus.

"It is. We're working on it," Gilchrest said.

It might seem odd to support agricultural production when farming is the bay's largest pollution source. But farm a lot cleaner we certainly can, and maybe even will. Gilchrest's corridor concept has elements that would help.

As population grows, who can say for sure what is the preferred destiny for Delmarva - source of feed, of food, of recreation - sanctuary for old-growth forests and oysters?

For sure we know the worst outcome - growing like the rest of fast-suburbanizing Maryland and Delaware, another Eden sliced and diced, served with a side of asphalt.

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