WASHINGTON – William Addison once thought farming was his future. After college, he returned to the farm where he was raised in Upper Marlboro. The year was 1973, the crop was tobacco and his dream was to farm full-time.
But just four years later, Addison had to take a part-time job in the Maryland Senate in Annapolis to make ends meet.
Over the years, he changed crops and tried to grow grain and vegetables, to no avail. He went back to tobacco. The only thing that hasn’t changed, he said, is the price of whatever he grows: it has been declining since he started.
“I got lucky enough to get a job,” Addison said. “Most farmers in the state of Maryland have outside sources of income. It’s just not possible to survive [otherwise], and I don’t care what you grow.”
Fewer and fewer farmers are surviving in Maryland these days. The state began this century with more than 46,000 farms, but it will enter the next with a little more than 12,000, according to data from the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.
In addition to the loss of farmers, the state has lost farms: Since 1980, the state has lost 144 acres of farm land every 33 hours, said James Hanson, with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.
The losses have come in some unexpected places. Dorchester County lost 85 percent of its farms since 1900, more than any other county. Baltimore, Somerset, Prince George’s and Talbot counties lost 80 to 83 percent of their farms.
St. Mary’s County did best, losing just over half of its farms this century, followed by Garrett and Frederick counties, which lost 64 and 65 percent of their farms respectively.
Farmers and farm experts say the biggest reason for the decline is economics.
“Farming is much more risky now,” said Bob Hutchison, a Talbot County farmer. He said prices are about the same as 28 years ago, when he started farming, while machinery and supplies are three and even four times as expensive.
“We have to buy everything at retail prices but sell wholesale,” said Hutchison, who works 3,800 acres of family-owned and leased land in Cordova with three of his four brothers.
The family runs a medium-sized hog operation in addition to growing grains. While good years in the past kept them going, commodity prices have not kept up with inflation at all lately, Hutchison said.
Figures from the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service back him up. From 1996 to 1999, for example, the cost of seeds and pesticides rose 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively, while prices for corn and soybeans fell about 40 percent and 35 percent.
Most farmers have been able to just break even, but some have been losing money, said David Knopf, the deputy state statistician.
The Hutchison brothers are helped by the fact that three of their wives have jobs off the farm, “for the medical insurance, if nothing else,” said Hutchison. His wife and one sister-in-law work in bank branches, while another sister-in-law raises and trains dogs at home.
Hutchison said the wives enjoy working off the farm, but it is a matter of making ends meet as well. “If we want more than the bare necessities, they have to,” he said.
While farming is less labor-intensive than it was when he started doing small tasks around the family farm at age 10, it is still very hard work.
Hutchison said the day starts at 7:15 a.m. and the work only stops when daylight is gone. It is not unusual to work 70 or 75 hours a week in busy months like June. Even in the winter, there is machinery maintenance and field work to do.
It is also hard to find help, Hutchison said. Fewer and fewer people know how to do the job, and even fewer are willing to learn.
Hutchison said his son is the only member of the next generation now working full-time as a farmer and the others — his daughter and 12 nieces and nephews — do not seem interested. One nephew works part-time on the farm, but he “may or may not” make it a career, said Hutchison.
Hanson said the loss of a farm also means the loss of farmland in Maryland, where development pressures usually result in land being sold to developers and not to other farmers.
“That’s a challenge for this government: To find a way to make it feasible for people to farm again,” said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
She said high land prices make it almost impossible to start a new farm in the state. The National Agricultural Statistics Service said Maryland had the fifth-most expensive farmland in America in January 1999, when an average acre in the state cost $3,300. The national average was $992 per acre. Only New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have higher land values.
“If we continue to have a decline in the numbers of farms, the U.S. population is going to be dependent on food produced elsewhere,” Connelly said. That food may not meet the same standards it has to meet in the United States, in such areas as controlled chemical use and tougher labor laws, she said.
“That should be a major concern for consumers,” she said.
While the loss of farmers weakens the economy and social fabric of small towns, it also affects city dwellers in subtle ways, say farm advocates.
City people lose access to fresher and healthier local produce when nearby farms shut down, Hanson said. And, on a psychological level, many people consider it important to feel connected with their local farmers, he said.
Addison, who said he started farming thinking he could help the United States become “the world’s supermarket,” admits he is disappointed his dream is unfulfilled.
Today, he leases most of his 234-acre farm and works 12 acres of tobacco himself. He estimates a yearly net profit of $1,000 an acre on the tobacco, working an average of about 20 hours a week.
“It’s an awful lot of time for very little return,” he said.
But Addison said he cannot imagine quitting, despite the hardship.
“My goal is to make a living outside and to keep farming,” he said.