ANNAPOLIS – There don’t seem to be as many spring chickens on Maryland farms these days.
The average age of farmers in the state is increasing, as high prices for land and machinery and low prices for crops are discouraging younger people from farming.
“There’s no such thing as going into farming unless it’s in the family,” said J. Allen Swann, 54, a fifth-generation Calvert County farmer and father of three. “You’ve got to be born into it.”
Yet he doesn’t know if his children will take over the farm one day.
“Each generation is getting farther removed from farming,” he said. “Everything costs so much and the farm income hasn’t kept pace on the same scale.”
The average age of farmers in the state is 55.2 years, according to Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service data for 1997, the most recent available. In 1992, the average age was 53.9 years.
In 1992, 143 farmers in the state were under age 25. About 2,050 were 70 years and older. In 1997, 96 Maryland farmers were under 25 and 2,106 were at least 70.
With fewer future producers, some farmers predict consumers will end up paying more for goods. Some farmers also say that less farming means more urban sprawl as farmers throw in the trowel and sell their land to developers.
That means fewer scenic vistas, said Mike Phipps, 38, who farms with his father in Calvert County. “The rural way of life is being fragmented.”
There were 12,500 farms in Maryland in 1998, according to Chuck Less, a statistician at the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service. In 1992, there were 13,037.
It is difficult for young people with no family connections to break into farming.
The average market value of a farm, including the land and buildings, is about $563,605, according to 1997 agricultural statistics. The cost of machinery and equipment is also expensive.
“Most of these guys have no assets to their name when they start out,” said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Many young would-be farmers are getting jobs outside the industry because they can’t afford to begin farming.
“Who at 20 or 25 can walk into a bank…and say, `I want to borrow a couple million dollars to start farming?'” said Mark Zuzik, administrator with the Maryland Farm Bureau.
To help slow the trend, Harford Delegates Barry Glassman, a Republican, and Mary-Dulany James, a Democrat, sponsored a bill that would allow young farmers to obtain additional cash to purchase farmland from retiring farmers under the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation program.
The bill passed the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee on Friday. It passed the House, 134-1, on March 25.
The cost of land and equipment needed to effectively compete is only part of the problem. Low market prices of agricultural products combined with a poor yield after last year’s drought and increasingly tight environmental regulations are making farming more difficult.
“I’ve loved farming all my life. It’s what I wanted to do,” said Roger Schmick, 33, a forth-generation farmer in Caroline County. Schmick farms land owned by his parents and also rents about 100 acres.
“I’ll tighten my belt down because of the way the commodity prices are and last year’s drought,” he said. Schmick said he doubts he would’ve gone into farming if his parents hadn’t been farmers.
“It’s getting increasingly tougher and tougher,” he said. “For those getting out of college and high school, starting from scratch is very difficult.”
The fewer number of young farmers is also the result of shifting demographics, with many younger people looking for certain income levels and less labor- and time-intensive work, Zuzik said.
“It’s an `I want it and I want it now’ attitude. But farming is a long- haul occupation,” he said.
Some farmers agreed.
“It’s easy to go down and work 40 hours a week and bring home a good pay check, get benefits, work in air conditioning,” Swann said. “Even I think highly of that at certain times.”