A week from today, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is scheduled to hold an Agricultural Roundtable where his proposal to loosen development restrictions on some farms is likely to dominate discussion.
The intention appears to be finding a balance that gives about three dozen farmers options for managing their rights as property owners and harvesting the most value from their land, not to dismantle decades of work to preserve farmland, all while complying with stricter environmental-protection mandates.
Early in his tenure, the county executive held meetings to look at the sustainability of agriculture in a growing suburban area and he has been a supporter of farms. He also has been a defender of the rights of property owners.
Farming is a tough profession, one buffeted by the uncertainties of commodity markets, the undulating costs of equipment and supplies, pressures of regulations and zoning, evolving consumer tastes and unpredictable weather.
Over the years, a number of family farmers across the state have gotten out of the business and sold off land for development. Others have repositioned, becoming niche growers of boutique produce, Christmas trees or opening their gates to agritourism. Still others have signed preservation agreements to keep their land as farms; some 22,349 of the county's 162,000 acres are covered by state or county preservation programs.
At its roots, the county executive's proposal raises broader question about the future and character of Howard County, including where, when and how to concentrate homes, offices, shops and restaurants, and maintaining a healthy base of businesses that will help support quality schools, parks and other amenities. Healthy farms are part of the mix.
More details of the county executive's proposals are scheduled to be released today, with a public hearing next month.
The scale, patterns and phasing of development matter. The county's leaders need to protect the western county agricultural preserve. They also must be sensitive to the pressures on farmers and provide flexibility through zoning that permits them to develop parts of their land without ruining the character of the agricultural preserve.
The same time, effort, thought and debate that went into crafting plans for the future of Downtown Columbia – an area of concentrated development – must be applied to farms.