When they read the title of Joel Salatin’s book, Everything I want to do is illegal, farmers often give a knowing smile. Stories like the legal battles over Prigel Family Creamery in Baltimore County raise concerns in the farming community that Maryland is not “farm friendly.” Although there are two million acres of farmland in Maryland, it has the fifth highest population density in the country. While population density equates to potential farm customers, it can also signify potential neighbor zoning conflicts for farmers.

That is the wrong message to convey when one needs new farmers. After decades of decline, the number of farms actually grew between 2002  and 2007 according to the ag census.  However, we will need hundreds of farmers to replace those who are retiring over the next few years. To highlight the problem, the number of farmers age 65 or older is six times larger than those ages 25 to 34. How do we create the right regulatory balance to help new farmers to farm here?

Here at SMADC, we have been looking into ways to attract new farmers into the profession. We have also looked into the regulatory challenges (local, state, and federal) that might send new farmers to other states. Many new farmers are looking into value-added production, such as wineries, dairies, acidified foods, and direct-to-consumer vegetable and meat sales. It is these types of farm operations that sometimes face the greatest challenges in meeting zoning and/or health regulations.

Many Maryland county zoning regulations were first adopted during the 1960’s and 1970’s when direct-to-consumer sales were no longer in style. Farmers had been moving toward commodity farming on a larger scale and tough new health regulations were closing small processing plants. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, interest in locally-sourced food has rebounded and agri-tourism has become popular. The new customers traipsing to farm stands, corn mazes, dairies and wineries over rural roads can create traffic congestion and generate zoning complaints from non-farm neighbors.

The purpose of zoning regulations is to help to implement comprehensive plans and to prevent new uses from affecting the use and enjoyment of adjacent properties. Effective zoning regulations address the noise, odors, dust, and traffic issues that may arise from the development of new uses. The question is, are the zoning regulations up-to-date? Are they flexible and streamlined?  Do they recognize the new direct-to-consumer sales operations and agri-tourism uses now popular with customers and essential for many new farm entrepreneurs?

Many Maryland counties have made progress in becoming more “farm friendly” by adopting Right to Farm regulations and by modernizing their zoning regulations. To find out more about the zoning regulatory environment in Maryland, check out our new zoning tutorial.

Next week: Health Regulations