Preserving Farms

Misc0005Frederick County is a place where history, agriculture, vibrant communities and nature all connect in one place.  But the land around us is changing.  Frederick County’s rural setting, open land, and convenient location to Washington, D.C. have become an attraction to real estate developers, making it one of the fastest growing counties in the state. The population has swelled by over 30 thousand people since 2002.  Farms, woods and streams are threatened by subdivisions, roads and strip malls.   The state of Maryland loses nearly 30,000 acres of land each year to sprawl and expects to lose 700,000 by 2030.

In a 2008 opinion poll county residents overwhelmingly said that one of the major threats to our county was loss of agricultural land and farming.  Citizens and leaders alike have expressed their hope for the continuation and success of local agriculture yet we have no programs to aggressively address this issue. Having data to substantiate claims and target projects is critical. The future of agricultural production and the viability of productive, diversified, and sustainable farms are far too important to be left to hope.

farmThe Office of Economic Development has anecdotal data to suggest that farmers and ranchers have little hope of selling or renting their land to continue production because there isn’t a younger generation of farmers and ranchers interested in taking over.  At a time when our county leaders are pulling in growth lines and mandating agricultural zoning in much of the area outside the growth lines, and the “buy local” movement is growing among our urban population, institutions and restaurants, interest in agricultural production is growing.  Almost one-half of Frederick County is farmland, and agriculture is one of the target industries for our Office of Economic Development.  The average age of the farmer/rancher in Frederick County is 58, yet there is minimal government investment to recruit new farmers (Office of Economic Development Frederick County 2008).   Aspiring farmers and ranchers face numerous obstacles to achieving their dreams that include a lack of information about financing options and other resources crucial to their success. Retiring farmers and ranchers lack information about proven, innovative ways to keep land in agricultural production while simultaneously meeting financial goals related to retirement and estate planning (Ferguson, pers comm. 2009).

Restating this, we are moving towards a community that demands local food and fiber, but production is bound to fall as farmers retire and let their land go fallow.  As this happens there may be mounting pressure to develop that land – taking it out of production forever. The economic future of the Frederick County’s agriculture depends on the ability of a new generation to enter farming. The barriers faced by the next generation are creating a crisis in agriculture.  Difficulty in identifying viable farm entry opportunities, lack of systematic approach, support and guidance to develop farm succession and retirement strategies, inability to find the capital investment for farm transfer, and lack of an organized method to identify, assess, screen and train beginning farms and rancher – and to link them to on-farm mentors and farm entry opportunities are huge barriers to the continuation of a viable agricultural economy in Frederick County. The importance of farm succession and matching unrelated new farmers with them can not be underestimated in a county with 202,000 acres of farmland and over 1400 farms – the largest of any county in Maryland – and a place where the quality of life is measured by the success of its farming community.

What citizens can do to preserve farmland:

  1. Buy local produce at farmers markets or subscribe to a CSA
  2. Ask your local grocer to buy local produce
  3. Help with our campaign to get more support for beginning farmers
  4. If you know a farmer let him/her know about the donate or purchase easement programs that could help their financial situation (ask us if you want more information)
  5. When there are hearings about housing or institutional development to happen on farmland find out more, and let your local leaders know that you are concerned!
  6. keep your eye on our website, we are working on new ways to support our farming community.

In Our Opinion:

With the tremendous push for residential development in Frederick County during the last 20 years it isn’t surprising that we’ve had an identity crisis – but maybe we are finally finding our way. Frederick County’s Office of Economic Development (OED) has put growth in the agricultural economy as a key target. The lone OED agriculture specialist has done commendable work to promote Buy Local through its label, school program and real and virtual farmers market. That’s one person to provide marketing expertise, examine policies to support and enhance farming, investigate the dearth of qualified farmers coming up through the ranks and develop programs to turn the tide, and evaluate on farm practices and new technologies to minimize energy costs and diversify income – and then promote those through county government.

A 2007 Friends of Frederick County (FoFC) “buy local” survey of over 500 citizens showed 98% buy local if given the option, and why? To support the Frederick County farmer. A June 2008 government survey revealed citizens are most concerned with loss of farmland and open space, lack of strong economic base and identity in Frederick County.

Our county government wants a healthy agricultural economy. The people want the farms, the farmer and their products. More public and private attention to making this happen would help our farmers not only survive but thrive in Frederick County.

Janice Wiles, Friends of Frederick County (submitted to the editor, FNP 2/6/09)