The brothers' application to get out of the preservation program says annual losses have ranged from $430,000 to more than $530,000 on the three farms combined from 2008 through 2010. But West, the foundation director, is not convinced that the Mullinixes did that poorly. She has commissioned an expert review of the partnership's profit-and-loss statements.
"It's a hard test, and it was intentionally made difficult.''
The Mullinixes have run afoul of the program a few times over the years with activities deemed non-agricultural. In 1999, they were denied a request to have a commercial landscaping business on their property, and two years ago they were forced to remove a topsoil screening machine, according to West. Last year, the foundation threatened to fine them up to $50,000 unless they shut down a second landscaping business operating from leased land on one of the farms.
"Over the years, some of our landowners struggle," said West. "Some of them need to do other things, and we understand that."
The foundation would permit the Mullinixes to run a landscaping business from one of the farms if it was their own company, she said, but not if they rent land to others. She said she told them they could remedy the situation last year by acquiring an ownership interest in the business, but added, "They tend not to always follow our advice."
"What difference does it make?" Mullinix countered. "Do I need to be a landscaper, too?" He contended that landscaping and farming go together, pointing out that the farms had sold some of the straw they produce to the contractors who rented space from them.
The head of the Howard County Farm Bureau, Howie Feaga, indicated he isn't inclined to endorse the Mullinixes' bid to reclaim their development rights. But he said the state farmland preservation program could perhaps be made more flexible.
"The state program is a little more restrictive than the county program, so to diversify it's a little harder,'' said Feaga, who converted his family's dairy farm in the 1990s to a horse-boarding operation.
"But there's a lot of farmers in the state program that are doing well, especially in a year like this," he added. "In Howard County, we've had one of the best growing seasons in probably a decade, with commodity prices at a record level."
It's not clear the Mullinixes will go through with pulling out of the farmland preservation program, even if they get approval from state and local officials, who also have a say. The brothers would have to reimburse the state for the money they received years ago, and it's likely to cost them far more than they originally got paid, noted West. Repayment is based on what the land is worth now — substantially more than it was in the 1980s — minus the value of the farming operation.
"We understand some of that," Mullinix said. "Cart before the horse."
Cathy Hudson, head of Howard's umbrella civic organization, said she finds it ironic the Mullinixes are claiming they can no longer make a go of farming. She recently began trying her hand at farming, raising vegetables, berries and chickens on her eight-acre property in Elkridge.
"There's a development going up next to me," Hudson said, "and I go, 'Oh! New customers!' I look at it differently. I see it as an opportunity to teach people where their food comes from. I think a lot of farms are having to switch their model to be compatible with the suburban influx. ... I don't think it's a bad accommodation at all."
Mike Mullinix acknowledges that some farms have changed what they raise and marketed their products directly to the public. But he questions how much demand there is for what he calls "agri-tourism."
"Farming's a disease," Mullinix said with a wry smile. "We love it," he said, but added "It's not as much fun. The fun's almost out of it. … We're so used to doing things — then to be told you can't…"
But West said the easements need to be restrictive to preserve the agricultural character of the land.
"When you take the state's dollars," she added, "you're giving permission for the state to tell you what to do."