WASHINGTON – Richard Hutchison will likely make a little bit of money this year from his farm. Prices were low, but the harvest was good.
But Hutchison knows that farming in Maryland is an increasingly precarious balancing act these days. Like most farmers in the state, he and his brothers rent much of the land they farm, and farm rents have steadily risen while prices have been flat.
Driven by development pressures, the value of Maryland farmland rose about 5.6 percent over the last year, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, rent on that farmland increased from about $54.20 per acre to $55.50 per acre, the report said.
“If we had had average or below yields this year, we probably would have lost money,” said Hutchison, who rents about 3,100 acres of the 3,400 acres he farms in Talbot and Caroline counties.
“Farmers have felt the squeeze,” said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
While an increase in the value of farmland would seem like a good sign for farmers at first glance, farmers and environmentalists see it another way.
Hutchison said some see the rent increase as a sign of healthy competition between farmers for land. But he said that farmers really have no choice but to pay more to outbid each other for farmland because there just isn’t enough fertile land left in the state.
“Every time you lose an acre, most farmers try to replace it somewhere else, and they’re just not making any more of it,” he said.
Farmland scarcity in Maryland is largely due to development pressures, to accommodate the state’s rapidly expanding population.
“It’s not anything that’s a surprise to us because it’s been happening for 20 years or more,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville.
Gilchrest said land scarcity presents yet another problem to farmers who want to keep the family farm while conserving land to protect the environment.
“We’ve got a lot of pressures like this that are eating into our tillable land base,” said Hutchison.
There is at least one good side to the increase in farm values: Ray Garibay, a statistician for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said there has been a slowdown in the acres of land sold for development.
Garibay attributed the slowdown to a combination of last year’s record harvest and to the increase in land values — landowners are less likely to sell when farm values are high.
“If the landowner can get the cash flow he needs, he’ll rent out the land,” Garibay said.
But Connelly noted that rising land values also make it harder for the state to combat urban sprawl and preserve agricultural lands, by making conservation easements more expensive. Such easements prevent farmers from selling out to developers.
“As land values increase, the less land the state is able to preserve for agriculture,” she said. “With this kind of information coming out, it’s all the more important for the state to come up with funding for agricultural land preservation.”