Dairy farms still vital to Harford County despite fewer farms

July 28, 2011

It's been 25 years since the federal government bought out a substantial number of dairy farmers in Harford County. Despite the federal buyout program and the suburbanization of a large swath of the county, dairy farming remains a way of life on 21 Harford farms.

It's a far cry from when dairy farming was number one in Harford County. And a substantial portion of the milk produced locally isn't a product that can be traced directly from the grocery store to a field in Darlington or Jarrettsville because most local producers sell through large milk cooperatives.

In a way, the persistence of the remaining local dairy industry says as much about the state of agriculture as does the degree to which dairy farming has diminished as an economic force.

On one hand, the county's contribution to the regional farm co-ops is tiny. On the other hand, some of the county's dairy farms have found being small is good business, producing and marketing their own lines of cheese and ice cream.

Going back more than a few generations, Maryland was very much an agricultural state. In addition to dairy, tomatoes and shoe-peg corn were key food crops associated with the state. These, of course, were dwarfed by what was once the state's king crop, tobacco.

While these and many other crops continue to be cultivated in the state and Harford County, a small state with small farms just can't produce the amount of produce of places like California, Texas and Florida, where the growing season is year-round and the acreage is practically unlimited.

But farming remains a business that can be plied profitably on relatively small plots. Thus, in addition to locally-produced cheese and ice cream, also new to the agricultural scene in these parts are ventures ranging from wine producing vineyards to fish farms to more traditional farms that market the fresh produce of the season in a non-traditional way.

It remains to be seen if the federal dairy buy-out of a quarter of a century ago set the stage for economic stability that allowed the remaining dairy farms to persist, or if those farms persist despite all of the efforts to do away with them. Either way, it's good to know not all of our food has to travel far to get to our tables.

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