Harvesting advice on saving farms

Wisconsin group studies Md. preservation

October 06, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,sun reporter

It seemed surprising at first that dairy farmers from Wisconsin - where land is plentiful and agriculture remains a top industry - traveled to Maryland this week to learn about farm preservation.

But Maryland's farm conservation efforts are almost 30 years ahead of those in the Great Lakes states, where sprawl is rampant, Wisconsin agriculture officials said yesterday.

Among the nation's farmland preservation programs, Montgomery, Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties respectively rank first, fifth, seventh and 10th on total saved acres, according to a September Farmland Preservation Report.

"This is where the concentration of people took place and challenged that existence of farmland," Michael Dummer, a board member of Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, said over lunch in Westminster yesterday. "We're hoping to get a head start on what may need to be done in the Midwest."

With contracts signed on 49,382 acres of land, Carroll County has nearly reached the halfway point in its goal to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland by 2020.

In addition to touring Carroll yesterday, the Wisconsin delegation visited Montgomery and Harford officials. They'll also study programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania today.

Wisconsin officials said they are trying to cluster growth around existing cities and towns - a Smart Growth technique Carroll's planners are trying.

Carroll is attempting to grow contiguous preserved areas, said Ralph Robertson, manager of Carroll's land preservation program. Some 10,000 continuous acres, stretching from just west of Westminster to Keymar, have been blocked off, Robertson said.

The Wisconsin group toured a farm in New Windsor on which the Hoff family, which has put 1,000 acres into preservation programs, raises 900 Holstein cows at Coldsprings Farms.

Owner Matthew Hoff, however, missed the visit because he was attending the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis.

In Wisconsin, developers are "gobbling up farmland," Dummer said. "There's no vision, no process, no understanding of how we're going to get there."

The costs of bringing schools, roads and water to rural areas are prohibitive and drive tax rates up, Dummer added.

Programs to transfer development rights and concentrate growth in one area also interested the Wisconsin group. Montgomery County transfers such rights, but Carroll does not.

"It's a little more liberal program," Robertson said of Montgomery. "We have chosen to just extinguish the development rights completely."

Transferring development rights is the only practical option along the corridor of the Washington suburbs, said John Zawitoski, director of Montgomery's farmland protection program.

Suburban sprawl from the Twin Cities in Minnesota is swallowing up the farmland in her Wisconsin district, said state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, part of the delegation.

Wisconsin passed Smart Growth laws about 2000, but they aren't enforced in the state's townships, which enjoy a great deal of autonomy, officials said.

With Carroll's proximity to Baltimore and Washington, the county's preserved pastoral landscape impressed Harsdorf.

"They have successfully protected a significant area of farmland even though they are facing extreme development pressures," she said.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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