Doing everything we can to protect agriculture

Posted on December 08, 1999 at 16:35:54:

Statistics don’t lie. They are cold, lifeless, completely objective numbers that often speak volumes. For instance, baseball players’ batting averages and quarterbacks’ efficiency ratings decide how much value their owners place on them. The statistics -- positive or negative -- can account for millions of dollars.

I haven’t picked up a bat in awhile and I don’t remember my last batting average. But I have inquired about statistics that will unfortunately prove -- without question -- that a way of life since the Ark and the Dove first landed on our shores in the 17th Century is slipping away in Maryland. Agriculture built this state and is still our most profitable industry in Maryland. And yet, we’re losing that way of life every day.

Let’s look at those cold, hard statistics. The loss of farmland in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s County has significantly decreased over the past 13 years. Farmland acreage in St. Mary’s County totaled 80,493 in 1987, dropped to 77,491 in 1992 and fell to 71,890 in 1997 -- the last year the Maryland Department of Agriculture conducted a census. In Calvert, farmland acreage was 41,251 in 1987, 37,320 in 1992 and 33,450 in 1997. In Charles the numbers read: 67,655 in 1987, 59,389 in 1992 and 55,928 in 1997.

This isn’t just a trend in Southern Maryland. The entire state is losing farmland. In 1987, Maryland was made up of 2,396,629 acres of farmland. That number fell to 2,223,476 five years later and two years ago was 2,154,875.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what takes the place of all this lost beautiful land. Instead of fields of grain and tobacco, fruits and
vegetables. Instead of barns and cozy farmhouses. Instead of cows and horses and sheep we’re seeing more and more houses, strip malls, convenience stores fast food restaurants and asphalt roads to accommodate the added populace these amenities attract.

It’s getting awfully crowded down here in Southern Maryland. And it sure is a lot different way of life in the area I was born and raised and have served in the House of Delegates, U.S. House of Representatives and currently Maryland Senate during my 25-year career.

Don’t get me wrong, Southern Maryland still has its beautiful landscapes. We still have the luxury of pleasant farm fields, woods and the added bonus of being surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay, Patuxent, Wicomico and Potomac rivers. Farmer’s markets and produce stands are scattered throughout the area. You can still go only just a few miles and happen on some good, fresh farm products harvested right here in Southern Maryland.

But as we enter the 21st Century in which every commercial nowadays seems to end with “access (dot) com on the web” the fight to keep our country roots alive is becoming more and more difficult. The average age of a Maryland farmer is 65. That’s three years over the usual retirement age.

Enough of the doomsaying, however. Preserving agriculture -- and keeping out development is difficult these days, but not impossible. There’s still time to save our farms and our open space.

For instance, Governor Glendening’s Smart Growth and Preservation Open Space programs will probably be his greatest legacy.

The Calvert County Commissioners meanwhile are pitching an idea they are calling farm land preservation in which they will request state bond authority to pay farmers for their development rights at today’s prices in 15 years. The farmer in return will receive tax free interest checks on the purchase price during the 15 years.

By purchasing the development rights now, Calvert will curb buildout from an earlier estimate of 54,000 new households to 37,000 households. By containing growth, millions of dollars will be saved because the state won’t have to widen Route 4 to six lanes and 12 new schools will not have to be constructed. The Calvert commissioners and staff maintain that this proposal will end up saving the county and state more than $100 million dollars.

As a way of preserving our agricultural heritage, this plan has my early support. I’m also leaning towards lobbying the governor to lend financial support to the University of Maryland’s Bio-Technical Laboratory which is developing alternate, healthy uses for tobacco that are profitable. This may end up keeping the tobacco farmer in business.

None of these plans are a sure thing, but they are a proactive step in curbing over development and preserving the way of life we’ve come to expect -- not miss -- in Southern Maryland.

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