Beginning farmers usually don’t get into the business to get rich and most tend not to be “cash-heavy”. Therefore, they find access to farmland to be a challenge.
Over the last 60 years, Maryland lost a little more than 1 million acres of farmland, most of it to suburban sprawl. Many land use planners and agronomists bemoaned the loss of that economic and environmental resource and cautioned elected officials that the developed land “will never be farmed again.” The farmland remaining is worth three times the average price of farmland in the U.S., which only makes it more difficult for beginning farmers to buy land. Those who persevere are creative.
We might have been premature in saying that the subdivided and developed properties will never be farmed again. Of course, much of the developed farmland is under roads, houses, garages, pools, etc. Some of the land has become septic fields and drainage easements. These lands are less likely to be used in the near future. However, soils maps reveal that much of what is left has the potential to be farmed. And the removal of abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit reminds us to never say “never”!
A classic example of reclaimed farmland is Eco City Farms in Edmonston, Maryland. It is a little island of green in an ocean of small-lot residential and commercial development that is producing great foods and teaching people to farm. I know some urban farmers in Baltimore City who are farming on undeveloped lots. I know a couple in St. Mary’s County who are farming in their own backyard and the backyards of neighbors. I know a family in Prince George’s County who is farming on a small tract of their land and they have leased several small tracks in the neighborhood.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Of course, these farmers are routinely checking Maryland FarmLINK for the ideal farm with deep, rich soils, water, a house and surrounded by other farms. However, until such a farm fits into their price range, they make do.
For a surprising number of farmers, it works, but there are a number of issues to address before giving it a try. First of all, is the lot in a subdivision? If so, are there recorded covenants that restrict all businesses? Do zoning regulations allow the use? Are the farmers simply growing food, or do they plan to sell from the property as well. If that is the case, special approvals or permits might be required.
Next, is the house on a community water system? If so, what does the water cost? Remember that plants often need about 1 inch of rain per week. If the rains don’t come, it would take about 27,000 gallons of water per acre to irrigate an equal amount. THAT can create an expensive water bill. If you are on a well, the state says that you need a permit to withdraw more than 10,000 gallons per day as I reported in Water supply options for farmers in Maryland.
Nevertheless, there are some good possibilities out there. I was particularly pleased to see Oakey Dokey Acres posted on Maryland FarmLINK for lease. It has a lovely house for rent and about five cleared acres that were previously used to grow crops. I understand that a deal is already pending.
Beginning farmers, there are probably hundreds of properties out there like this. We will continue to try to get people to post these on Maryland FarmLINK. But don’t stop there. Ask realtors if they are aware of nice old cottages on several acres to lease or purchase. Ask their help in tracking down any subdivision covenants. Use our Soils Tutorial to see if they are suited to your type of agriculture. Use our Zoning Tutorial to check for any zoning restrictions.
Create your own little “Green Acres” farm in suburbia, while you build equity to purchase the ideal farm!