Homebuilding boom eats up farmland but boosts state's $1.5 billion sod industry

ON THE FARM

February 25, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

The same new homes that are gobbling up farmland across Maryland at an alarming rate have provided a boon to the turf grass industry, an often-overlooked sector of the state's agriculture industry.

An estimated 1.1 million acres -- nearly 20 percent of Maryland's land -- is covered by maintained grass, and by far the greatest portion adorns the yards of single-family homes, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The study also concluded that turf grass is a $1.5 billion industry in Maryland, in terms of dollars spent on equipment and the production, maintenance and use of turf grass products and services.

The industry accounts for an estimated 12,730 jobs, two-thirds of them full-time, and wages topped $291 million in 2005, the period covered by the report.

"Life is full of Catch-22s," said Eugene B. Roberts Jr., a member of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, when asked about turf farmers supplying grass to homes sprouting on fields where cows once grazed or crops grew.

Grass is a large component of the so-called green industry, which includes nurseries and greenhouses, and has been the fastest-growing segment of farming in the state over the past five years, he said.

The survey estimates that 937,000 acres of turf grass in Maryland are used for lawns for single-family homes. That amounts to 82.6 percent of the maintained grass in the state.

County government properties come in a distant second with 78,200 acres, which is 6.9 percent of the total.

Driven by one of the hottest real estate development markets in the country, Maryland has the sixth-most-expensive farmland in the nation, according to a USDA survey released last year.

The housing market has been good for suppliers of grass but has been taking a heavy toll on the state's farmland. Maryland has been losing farmland at a rate nearly four times that of the nation as a whole in recent years.

State officials have pointed to the high value of land and the resulting loss of farmland as the biggest threat to Maryland agriculture.

Mary Ellen Setting, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, stressed the positive side of the turf grass survey. She said the report was "the most comprehensive picture to date of the scope and economic importance of the state's turf grass industry."

"It shows that this segment of the `green' industry is a significant contributor to the state's work force, economy and land use," she said. "Sod farmers are the foundation of a large and growing industry that has great benefit to the environment, as well."

The dense root system of grass makes it very efficient at controlling erosion, the study said. It also improves water quality by filtering runoff and contaminants that could pollute groundwater and the Chesapeake Bay.

Other findings of the study:

Nearly 31,000 acres of new turf was installed in 2005 at a cost of $89 million. Single-family homes accounted for 28,190 acres.

Lawn care companies employed the most workers -- 5,800 -- followed by golf courses with 2,330 and schools with 1,200 turf maintenance workers.

Golf courses spend more than any other sector on turf maintenance, more than $5,000 an acre per year.

Roberts said the survey was done to quantify the contributions of turf grass to the state's economy in hopes that the University of Maryland would continue its research in support of the industry.

Polling farmers

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is stomping rural regions of the state to get a feel for what farmers would like to see in the new national farm bill.

In addition to visits to farms, the 1st District Republican has scheduled town meetings, including one in Harford County.

"We want to talk with those people directly affected by the farm bill and hear their views on how it can be improved to help protect the family farm and keep agriculture viable," said Gilchrest, whose district covers the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Two sessions will be held tomorrow, the first at 8:30 a.m. at the Linkwood-Salem Volunteer Fire Company, 3905 Ocean Gateway in Linkwood, and the second at 7 p.m. at the USDA Service Center, 30730 Park Drive in Princess Anne.

Two sessions will be held Tuesday. The first will start at 8 a.m. at the Cecilton Volunteer Fire Company, 110 E. Main St., in Cecilton. The second will be held at noon at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension office, 2335 Rock Spring Road in Forest Hill.

The final session will be held March 5 in the first-floor meeting room of the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis.

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