DSC07357The Great Recession of 2007 left millions unemployed. It drained retirement plans and  crippled our economy, especially the housing industry. I am glad to see signs that the housing industry is recovering. I hope that this time, its success will not come at the cost of Maryland’s farms.

Let me acknowledge that I am a farm boy who never left the farm. I am not currently farming, but I still live on the farm where I grew up, and I have a bias for the value of farms and those who farm them. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

Maryland has always been well suited to agriculture, with its temperate climate and

Source: Environment, National Geographic

Source: Environment, National Geographic

approximately 40 inches of rainfall per year. However, Maryland lost nearly 30,000 acres of farmland per year from 1959 to 2007, primarily due to residential subdivision development. And despite a number of effective state and local land preservation programs developed in the 1970s and 1980s, Maryland still lost approximately 20,000 acres of farmland per year between 1982 and 2007. It also lost over 3000 of those “most independent, the most virtuous” farmers.

It is Spring, and farm tractors are beginning to roll and people are thinking about agriculture. A newspaper in one of the most prosperous farming regions in the area, the Lancaster Times, just posted an article called The Price of Sprawl. Lancaster County has lost thousands of acres to sprawl, and the article noted the financial folly of allowing development in rural areas, stretching infrastructure and services out where it is not cost-effective to maintain. I just read a Grist article reporting that California, our nations #1 food production region, is losing 1% of its farmland per year to sprawl and is trying new steps to protect this national resource.

constructionFarmland is typically targeted for development because the land is cheaper than urban areas with infrastructure needed for housing. However, as rural areas are developed, roads have to be widened, new schools, libraries, and fire stations have to be constructed, and the governments are forced to increase taxes to maintain quality of life. This drives up the cost of land, farmers leave, taxes increase and the next nearest rural area is targeted for development.

Farmers have often been conflicted on the issue of regulating growth. They are not happy to see more suburban neighbors and rue the additional traffic on rural roads, which makes it more dangerous to move farm equipment, but they are concerned that new growth regulations will reduce the value of their land. I have been monitoring farmland values for over thirty years, and it is my opinion that their concerns usually are not realized, especially if there are effective land preservation programs in place.

Kent is one Maryland County that seems to have it figured out. Their farming community supported one house per 30 acre zoning density more than a decade ago. Their farmland values remain high, compared with neighboring counties which allow higher residential densities. Rural counties need to do a cost/benefit analysis of their own before allowing/encouraging more development of their farmland. Says Jeff Hawks, “For too long suburban growth has given us a false sense of prosperity. The sooner we embrace fiscally responsible development, the sooner we’ll secure a better future.”