Farmers protect land and lifestyle

September 17, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

So that houses never replace their sheep pastures and grain fields, Gene and Louise Umbarger have permanently safeguarded their Churchville farm from development. Harford County will pay the couple $1.3 million, about half the market value of their property, to place Woolsey Farm in land preservation.

Of the 16 farms Harford County chose for its preservation program this year, the Umbargers' 164-acre spread rated highest for its soil quality, size and potential for development. Gene Umbarger, who has lived all his 75 years on the farm his grandfather purchased in 1918, said saving the land is saving his family's legacy.

"Our family likes to farm, and they want to keep on doing it," he said. "As long as we can make a living at it, we will do it."

Louise Umbarger, who has worked the farm with her husband since 1968, said entering the preservation program is a leap of faith, but one she is willing to take for her children and grandchildren.

"This is an awfully big step for a farmer," she said.

Harford County added 1,167 acres this year to the more than 40,000 acres that will remain farmland in perpetuity. About 90,000 acres throughout the county meet preservation criteria regarding size, development potential and soil quality. Although land prices continue to rise, another 30 farms are on a waiting list for preservation funds.

Harford is one of five Maryland counties that have helped the state preserve about 400,000 acres, a hefty total for a state with about 2.1 million acres of farmland, state officials said. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is set to announce additional preservation efforts tomorrow at Gunpowder State Park in northern Baltimore County. Pending approval from the state Board of Public Works, Harford will receive $2 million in Rural Legacy funds for its preservation efforts in this fiscal year.

"If you preserve, you create a more attractive quality of life for your residents and you are protecting your watersheds," said Jim Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

County Executive David R. Craig has made preservation pivotal in his campaign for re-election. In his 14 months in office, the county has preserved more than 2,000 acres, assuring Craig that the program will reach its goal of 55,000 acres by 2012.

"Preservation is important to our quality of life," Craig said. "We want to keep Harford as rural as we can."

Should farmer and horse breeder Billy Boniface, who won the Republican nomination for County Council president last week, win the seat in November, he also would be a strong advocate for more preservation and more support for farmers through tax incentives, increased economic development and other programs.

His Bonita Farms was one of the state's first horse farms to enter the preservation program in 1986.

"We sold our development rights for a lot less than what people get now, but it helped us build our infrastructure," said Boniface, who chairs the Young Farmers Advisory Board. "You are asking people to give up a lot and you have to continue to support them when they do. The best way to keep agriculture viable is to increase its profitability."

It is particularly difficult to entice aging farmers into the program, especially those without family to follow them in the business, he said.

"Land equity is often their only retirement," he said.

For G. Roy Joines, a lifelong bachelor with no immediate family who has farmed 60 of his 72 years in White Hall, the decision to preserve his land came as he looked out on his fields filled with corn and green beans.

"I hate to see good farms go to houses," he said. "I hope to farm my home farm until I go to my grave."

Joines left school in ninth grade "to give my life to farming. I never looked back. I watched a long line of people from my class become doctors or lawyers, but I would never trade places with them."

He bought his farm in the 1940s and still raises beef and grows grain there. The $1.3 million he received for adding his 168 acres to the program will enable him to spend his retirement years on his farm without fretting about the future.

"As I get older, I might have to sell, but I want to sell a farm as a farm," he said.

Joseph and Juanita A. Mullhausen said preservation has given the next generation of their family nearly $800,000 to continue operating their 168-acre farm in Street. Their son and grandson are working the farm the couple purchased in 1962.

"We want to keep it as a farm," said Juanita Mullhausen. "All of us have pressure from developers. Our oldest son came back to work here a few years ago, and this money will help him get started."

The Mullhausens used to run a dairy farm but switched to beef cattle. They raise grain on their land and rent other acreage to grow other crops.

"You have to be big to make money in farming," she said. "You can't make a living on just 100 acres."

Preservation assures farmers that land will be available to them well into the future. For more than 40 years, the Mullhausens have watched residential subdivisions sprout up where they once saw fields of grain and lush pastures.

"You can't stop development, but we are trying to preserve a legacy for our family," she said. "This way they can't put houses here."

Most farmers hope they never see their land "cut into houses," said Gene Umbarger, whose son and daughter-in-law are carrying on the farm tradition. Worley and Cindi Umbarger are raising sheep and cattle and marketing Woolsey Farm lamb and beef. The two tame tom turkeys foraging in the barnyard are not the beginnings of another business, the family said.

"They are family pets named Thanksgiving and Christmas and they will never be a meal," Louise Umbarger said.

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