WASHINGTON – Maryland lost an estimated 200 farms from 2001 to 2002, but the amount of farmland in the state remained the same for the fourth year in a row, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The seeming paradox reflects changes in the agriculture business, where midsize farmers are being squeezed out in favor of large corporate operations on one end and smaller boutique farms on the other, officials said.
When owners of medium-sized farms, from 100 to 700 acres, sell their land to larger cash-grain producers, the acreage remains the same but the number of farms decreases, said Paul Gunther, Queen Anne’s County extension agent.
Medium-sized farms may also be divided into smaller farms, which Gunther said make up the fastest-growing segment of the agriculture business.
The number of new small farms has not grown fast enough to keep the total number of farms from decreasing, said state statistician Norman Bennett, but they have prevented a sharper drop in number.
Queen Anne’s County has had an influx of small niche-type farms such as vegetables or nurseries, Gunther said. He likened the shift to specialty crops to the change from the industrial age to the computer age.
“The opportunities that are being created by the urban encroachment are going to put our operators in a much better situation,” he said. “Disappearing land doesn’t mean doom and gloom for the agriculture community.”
The urban markets allow farmers to try new types of agriculture that earn more money per acre, like greenhouses or raising birds for hunting, some said.
“It’s economy of scale, so to speak,” said Wick Dudley, a former grain farmer who now grows grapes, hot peppers and trays of flowers near Queenstown.
Corn and soybeans do not sell for enough per acre to support a family or even pay the taxes on the land, he said.
“A lot of people are coming up with ways to grow more value-added type things,” he said.
These specialty producers, growing such things as grapes, trees, turf, or cut flowers, can survive, said Danielle Fitzko, a horticulturist in the Queen Anne’s extension office.
But some other farmers get out of the business entirely. Often, their land is worth much more as real estate than as a farm, Bennett said.
The 2002 drop in the number of farms resumed a downward trend in Maryland, after three years of stable numbers. From 2001 to 2002, only two states lost a greater share of their farms than Maryland’s loss of 1.6 percent. Delaware lost 4 percent and Nebraska lost 1.8 percent.
The USDA defines a farm as any establishment that produces or sells, or would normally sell, $1,000 or more of agricultural products in a year.
The greatest losses in the state in the past decade have been in the more urban areas along the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and on the Lower Shore.
Queen Anne’s County is in a precarious position, “being sucked into the development arena from all sides,” Gunther said.
The county is close to both Baltimore and Washington and also feels development pressure from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Because it is the first county across the Bay Bridge, it appeals to commuters, he said.
Balancing development with preserving the medium-size farms is “a tough issue,” Gunther said. Having good schools and roads requires a certain amount of development, but too much can hurt the agriculture industry.
Gunther said that with the increasing development on the Eastern Shore, the county will have to examine whether it can continue to be a cash grain producer or whether it should capitalize on its location in the center of 9.5 million people.
“The family farm — medium size, producing enough to feed one family — will pass by the wayside,” he said.