Preservation is hot, but not all farmers are convinced

On The Farm

September 25, 2005|By STACY KAPER

As the final day of summer dawned last week, Shadow Springs Farm yielded the birth of a lean, white Charolais calf. Farmer J. Robert Tibbs Jr. checks on the calf throughout the day as he has done with scores of cattle on this land for nearly 30 years.

The cattle here will come and go, but Tibbs wants to preserve the Havre de Grace farm for generations to come. He has preserved the property through one of Harford County's agricultural land preservation programs.

This month the independent Farmland Preservation Report published a survey that found Harford is among the nation's leaders in farmland preservation. Harford has preserved 38,600 of 90,000 acres that are agriculturally assessed. The survey took into account land in local and state preservation programs, and acres preserved through transfer of development rights.

"It is so important for a county to preserve a rural character," said William Amoss, Harford County's agricultural land preservation program administrator. "It creates a very stable economic situation in the county when land does not need a lot of services."

In exchange for selling development rights, Tibbs will retain ownership and collect 50 percent or less of his property's value in installments and avoid capital gains taxes.

Changes in zoning, buying easements and the transfer of development rights have been the major agricultural land preservation methods in Maryland. It is too soon to judge their effectiveness, said Bruce Gardner, interim dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland.

"The state of Maryland has been losing agricultural land for many years, mainly to suburban development. ... The question for the future is where to focus the state's resources," Gardner said.

Tibbs' story is similar to that of many farmers who have chosen to protect their land through local, state or other land trust preservation programs. He is approaching retirement, wants to continue the farming tradition, and doesn't have a family member or other benefactor to carry on the farm.

Riding on a green utility vehicle, Tibbs crosses to an adjacent patch of farmland he leases for corn production and pauses on a peak he said is the second-highest in the county.

Tibbs said he likes to sit and watch the hawks flying overhead and the deer in the field. With the vehicle's engine cut, there is little noise. It is a way of life he believes in.

"To me, that's part of farming. It's part of life. That's why it's in your blood. You don't hear any cars or trucks," he said.

Past the cornfields, single-family houses are sprouting up on what used to be Briney Farm. Tibbs and his wife, Judith, made an offer to buy the farm when the owner, Crawford Briney, died, but there was no way they could outbid developers, Tibbs said.

The houses' prices start in the low $600,000s, according to a billboard ad.

While the county is doing what it can to preserve agricultural land, it is not offering the farmer enough money to be viable, say some lawmakers, such as state Sen. J. Robert Hooper.

"When a developer offers $100,000 for a 1 1/2 - to 2-acre plot of land, the county can't compete with an offer of $4,000 to $5,000 per acre. The county is going to have to up the ante," said Hooper, a Harford Republican.

County funding comes from a real estate transfer tax. Rising real estate rates should bolster those returns, but Hooper said the General Assembly needs to allocate more state funding to preservation programs as well.

Even with a steady annual increase in county easements, some farmers are not convinced agricultural land preservation is the way to go.

Next to Shadow Springs Farm, Nolan Gallion and his son, Nolan Gallion Jr., are weighing options for their 100-acre cattle, hay and soybean farm. Gallion's 15-year-old grandson might not go into the family business.

While preservation is a good option for some farmers, "[it] locks you into one way of thinking. It's all in what you want and what you can or can't see in the extensive future of agriculture in this part [of the state]," Nolan Gallion Jr. said.

The Gallions said farming is tough financially and that most farmers must work outside jobs to acquire and maintain a farm.

Gallions' Farm has been their sole business since 1976. The Gallions have looked into county preservation programs but say easement offers are too far off the mark of property values, especially for farmers with no pension plans.

"I could sell 20 acres for 10 building lots for $3.5 million," Gallion said. "It's nice to have open land, but it don't put food on the table."

Developer Jim Lambdin, president of Lambdin Development, whose customers include commercial and residential builders in the area such as Ryan Homes, sees a place for preservation and development.

"I've never thought that preservation is in competition with development," said Lambdin, who also is a Cecil Land Trust board member.

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