Ingenuity helps keep farming alive


The farmers of Carroll County, with a rich, varied tradition of agriculture, are adapting to changing markets and shifting demands in innovative ways to preserve their agrarian culture.

Unprecedented residential growth and decreased market demand led to a drop in the county's acreage of harvested cropland, according to a 2002 University of Maryland agricultural study, from about 117,000 acres in 1960 to about 103,000 acres in 2000. However, the county is still a thriving agricultural center.

But the agricultural output of Carroll County is slowly falling and it's taking ingenuity and business savvy to keep the county in its position of agricultural prowess.

"Increased development obviously is a hindrance to agriculture to a certain extent," said Gabe Zepp, agricultural marketing specialist at the Carroll County Department of Economic Development. "It increases competition for the purchase of land."

This increased development and the rising land costs that result from it, in addition to many other factors, combine to make the region less viable, and certainly less profitable, for agricultural purposes than many other areas of the country.

"For agriculture, obviously I think cost of living will play a part," Zepp said. "We're certainly not on an even playing field with folks in Iowa and the Midwest, which puts us at a disadvantage."

Differences in market demand between Carroll County and much of the northeastern seaboard and the Midwest also contribute to the disadvantages that have contributed to the slow decrease in the amount of farming practiced in the county.

"When we're talking about grain production, we don't have as many opportunities to market grain in this area to sell it to different companies as they do in the Midwest," Zepp said. "Anytime we can have added competition from businesses that are looking to purchase our grain and those sorts of things, that's an advantage to farmers."

But those opportunities aren't coming in the traditional way, Zepp and Carroll County farmers say. The soybean market, which is one of the most important in the county, took a significant hit when Archer Daniels Midland Co.'s Baltimore grain export pier closed in June 2001.

However, despite this closing, soybean production skyrocketed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2004 Carroll County Agricultural Profile, from 569,400 bushels in 2002 to 915,200 bushels in 2004, even though the number of acres of soybeans harvested during that span increased from 20,200 to only 21,900.

These numbers are due to a jump in yield during that period from 28.2 bushels per acre to 41.8 bushels.

However, Carroll farmers say that these numbers are not indicative of an improvement in farming strategies and that they are just an anomaly based on the spectacular weather they said the county experienced during 2003 and 2004.

"The price of corn and soybeans are down," Westminster farmer Tommy Dell, of Dell Brothers Inc., a farming group that grows, among other things, soybeans, said, "and the price of oil, the price of fuel, the price of machinery, and everything we have to use to grow is up."

On the other hand, hog-raising, another industry in which Carroll has traditionally been one of the state's leaders, has followed a very serious downward trend. In 1997, according to the USDA profile, 9,688 hogs were raised in the county. By 2002, that number had dropped to 5,014 hogs.

Despite this decrease, the county is still second in the state in the hog-raising industry.

Farmers countywide have begun to capitalize on new and increasingly popular markets.

These new markets, farmers say, have come with the rise of suburban development in the county, and with the evolving taste catalyzed by the arrival of this new breed of Carroll County residents.

Dairy is still the leading industry in the county, according to the USDA profile and Zepp, bringing in $21.6 million in 2004.

But the longtime second-place moneymaker, grain and oilseed production, has been knocked out of place by a market that Zepp says caters in large part to the suburban crowd.

The nursery and greenhouse market brought Carroll County horticulturalists $12.4 million in 2004, while grains and oilseeds raised $10.7 million.

Other markets, once considered niche markets in the county, are becoming more lucrative with new citizenry.

The 2004 USDA profile indicates that 1,290 equine "places" existed in Carroll County in 2004, with an "equine inventory" that totals over $31.7 million.

"The equine industry within the county seems to be growing because we seem to have more and more small farms with a few horses for pleasure and for recreation, which are popular, while some are for breeding purposes," Zepp said.

Beyond the huge economic benefit the equine industry brings to the table, it has also led to an increase in demand for forage crops, such as hay, Zepp said.

Hay production increased slightly between 2002 and 2004, from 65,800 tons to 69,900 tons.

Despite lower market demand, increases in energy costs, encroaching suburbs and other pressures on Carroll's agricultural industry, farming is in the county, and the state, to stay.

"The persistence of cropping activity in every county is striking. ... This finding is especially notable in view of the evident continued expansion of housing and commercial development on former farmland," reads the 2002 University of Maryland study, which was released by the school's Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Policy.

"The state [should] still have 1.9 million acres of farmland in 2050," it went on to say, "compared to 2.1 million now."

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