Foundation's bay report supports maintaining farmland

on the farm

September 03, 2006|By Ted Shelsby

Restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay will require a healthy agricultural economy in the region, according to a new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that encourages all Marylanders - including city dwellers - to take a role in the effort to maintain farmland.

"The loss of farms and forest land endangers the fabric of rural life, local economies and the health of the region's rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay," says the report, which was written by Lee Epstein, director of the foundation's lands program.

The report outlines methods, tools and programs available to help save farmland and how farmers and others can seek changes in their communities.

The guide reflects the new line of thinking by the environmental group, which in the past has viewed farms as major polluters and as the primary culprit in the 1997 outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in three Eastern Shore waterways flowing into the bay.

"We're all maturing," Epstein said in an interview, explaining the foundation's new view of farms. "We understand that in many ways, we have the same objectives. Farmers want to farm and, in general, if it's done well, farming is good for the bay."

Epstein said the foundation never was the "evil empire" that some farm organizations claimed.

"But there is no doubt that our thinking about farms has changed in recent years," he said.

The report lists the continuing loss of farmland in the bay watershed - Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia - as a major threat to the bay's health.

The three states lost 1.25 million acres of farmland from 1987 to 1992. This pace slowed during the next five years, with the loss of about 160,000 acres.

Farmland loss accelerated again from 1997 to 2002, a period during which 319,000 acres disappeared.

The bay states lost almost 5,000 farms from 1997 to 2002.

Maryland, which has been losing farmland at about twice the national rate, has lost 40 percent of its cropland since 1965.

"These numbers surely represent a warning sign," Epstein wrote in the 14-page report.

The loss of farmland feeds on itself, according the report. At the most basic level, successful faming requires a critical mass of resources and markets, Epstein wrote.

"A sufficient land base is a crucial component. When farmers sell out to developers and prime cropland begins to grow houses, the resulting suburbanization erodes and fragments farmland," he said.

As a result, Epstein said, the mechanics of farming - such as moving equipment around - becomes more difficult. Some who move into new developments object to unexpected sights, sounds, smells and long work hours in farming.

The residential development of farmland leads to a rise in farmland prices to match urbanization's value, which make staying on the land to farm it even more difficult.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last month that Maryland has the sixth-most-expensive farmland in the country. Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said the rising value of farmland and the resulting loss of farms is the biggest threat to Maryland's farm industry.

Epstein wrote that an acre of well-managed farmland is better for the bay than an acre of new development.

According to the report, the farm retains its rainwater filtration capacity. Not so for an acre of development, even if it includes only one house.

The housing development is supported by many more acres of supporting development, including new and expanded roads, shopping centers, parking lots, schools, fire stations, recreation centers and churches. Epstein said the resulting runoff is far greater than that from well-managed farmland.

An acre of urban or suburban development generally delivers nearly twice as much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution to local waterways and the bay as farms do, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that was established to improve the health of the bay.

The foundation printed 1,000 copies of the report at a cost of about $4,000 and has mailed copies to farm organizations, preservation groups and local government officials, Epstein said.

Copies of the free report can be obtained by calling April Sheesley at the foundation, 443-482-2150, or be visiting the foundation's Web site at

Agricultural preservation

In a report titled "A Guide to Preserving Agricultural Lands in the Chesapeake Bay Region," the Chesapeake Bay Foundation suggests several tools for conserving farmland in Maryland, including:

Conservation easement, an agreement between a landowner and usually a government agency that prevents nonagricultural use of the property in return for reduced taxes.

Land-preservation programs in which the government organizations pay farmers a fee to keep land in farming.

Planning and zoning. "Only very low residential densities, on the order of one dwelling per 25 or 50 acres, can begin to protect farmland and farming," according to the report.

Purchase by the local government of the development rights assigned to a farm.

Transfer of development rights, in which local government helps to create a marketplace for the sale of development rights. A farmer could sell development rights on his or her farm to developers, who would boost higher housing density than otherwise allowed in areas designated for residential development.

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