The three contestants for Howard County farm queen, squirming in their scratchy new dresses, rocked on the balls of their feet, backward and forward, backward and forward.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

The judges huddled in an office at the quaint fairgrounds next to Interstate 70, deciding the winner.

The contest was last Sunday in the same damp show ring where an hour earlier the milking contest was held and a couple of hours later sheep and pigs would be shown.

As the judges considered the girls' backgrounds, one fact stood out: Of the three contestants for farm queen, only one lived on a farm.

If you peel the skin away from that fact you'll find a trend not only in Howard County, but also all along the congested Washington-Baltimore corridor.

Compact "farmettes" or "hobby farms," as they're called, are replacing the large, working farm. The traditional farm is dying.

Shannon Harrison, one of the contestants, has lived all but the first two months of her life on an 80-acre dairy farm in Woodbine. She is a cheerful, energetic 16-year-old with freckles on her cheeks.

She feeds calves, milks cows, unloads hay and works alongside her brother and parents.

She even keeps a few pigs she shows at the fair. She would have to show them after the farm queen contest.

She loves the farm, she says, and doesn't mind those few classmates at Glenelg High School who think "farmers are poor people with yucky clothes." But she's quick to add that those same classmates say to her: "Oh, you don't look like you live on a farm."

When her parents bought the farm in 1977, they could look out their kitchen window and see but one house, an old farmhouse surrounded by fields. That pastoral view is gone forever.

Today, they see 48 houses being built on what was a neighbor's 200-acre dairy farm, 25 houses going up on what were 75 acres of crop land and, directly across the narrow road, wells being drilled for 27 houses on what was a sloping field of green sod.

What's more, the Harrisons rent 350 acres -- 250 in Howard and 100 in Carroll County -- on which they grow hay and corn for their 190 Holstein calves, heifers and cows.

The 250 acres in Howard have been subdivided and are for sale.

The Harrisons, reluctantly, have subdivided their farm and staked a "for sale" sign out front.

They are losing the acres they rent and they don't want to run a farm in the middle of suburbia. They have their eye on a 215-acre farm in Frederick County in a farming valley 30 miles to the west.

"What choice do we have, really," says Susan Harrison, Shannon's mother.

"For this area, I think the large farms are just about history. The 3-acre farm is the coming thing."

Margaret Cahill, 16, another of the farm queen contestants, lives on a 2 1/2 -acre farmette in Columbia. She keeps a rabbit, two horses and a dog named Grim.

Joella Russell, 17, the third contestant, lives on one acre in Mount Airy. She has pigeons, rabbits, chickens and two dogs. She takes care of a cow at a nearby farm.

This is typical of farm queen contests in Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Howard counties, and to a lesser degree in Baltimore and Harford counties, says John Butler, field services director for the Maryland Farm Bureau. He coordinates the state farm queen contest and attends contests in the 23 counties.

The Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and counties from Carroll on west still have no trouble finding contestants from working farms, Mr. Butler says.

"Agriculture is still very viable in Maryland," he says. "I don't want to indicate that it isn't."

The number of farms in Maryland, about 15,000, actually increased by 200 from 1987 to this year, according to U.S. Census figures.

Tony Evans, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, says the more accurate description of what increased are "farm units," which include some farmettes, part-time farmers and gardeners who sell produce.

A more meaningful statistic is the number of acres farmed in Maryland. And that, Mr. Evans says, has decreased every year since World War II.

Fewer young people are farming because of the large initial expense, the lack of land and the hard work.

So the average age of farmers is increasing. A 16- or 17-year-old contestant in a farm queen contest is more likely to be the granddaughter of a farmer than the daughter.

At the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair tonight, for example, judges will select the queen from six contestants and the king from three.

Of those nine teen-agers, says Shelli Dronsfield, a fair official, only one lives on a traditional farm.

But all are active in 4-H. And that represents the flip side of the trend: 4-H clubs in suburban counties are thriving. Parents moving into houses on old farmsteads seem to want their children to learn about agriculture and farm animals.

Margaret Cahill, the farm queen contestant in Howard County, says her parents moved from Baltimore's Mount Washington to Columbia eight years ago so they could have horses. Margaret has two.

She's a wonderful rider who's won about everything there is to win in 4-H horse competition.

"I'm running out of things to do in the horse field," she says. "I was looking through the fair book and said, 'Wow, I want to do that.' "

"That" was be farm queen.

"It's just another achievement I could get," she says.

Joella Russell's family moved onto their acre in Mount Airy 13 years ago. Joella's father, a truck driver, grew up near here and wanted to return to the country.

Joella's mother, Emma, says it took a lot of courage for Joella to enter the farm queen contest because she's so shy. "But she's always trying to enter something," Ms. Russell says. "She's got that willpower."

And so Joella and Margaret and Shannon Harrison waited. They waited in the show pavilion for the judges to come back. It had rained on and off all day. Their pretty white shoes were splattered with mud.

They had met privately with the judges and then stood before a microphone and answered questions about agriculture in Howard County. The idea was to see which girl knew the most about it and could express it best.

This was not a beauty contest. The queen would represent the county at the state farm queen contest at the end of the month, and attend farm functions and speak to groups throughout the coming year.

People filled the bleachers on two sides of the pavilion. It was surrounded by barns filled with animals. As the contestants spoke you also heard cows moo, sheep baa and ducks quack.

Margaret's mother, Cathleen, held her daughter's Australian shepherd, Grim. At Ms. Cahill's command Grim barked whenever Margaret's name was mentioned. That morning Margaret had showed Grim in two classes and won both.

But the crowd, which included many farmers, was behind Shannon. People whooped when she stepped to the microphone to tell about herself and explain how agriculture had influenced her life.

She gave a little speech about being an honor student, a #F champion swimmer and a devoted farmer. She wasn't exactly eloquent, but she was charming.

And she won. The judges named her 1992 Howard County farm queen.

After being interviewed by local reporters, she bounded back in her stiff purple dress to her family's stall of heifers and cows.

A sign hung with the name of their farm: Dun Loafin. Shannon said she couldn't wait to get out of that dress and change into her jeans.

It had been a rare victory for a farm girl in these days of development and disappearing farmland. It was a short-lived one, too.

The new queen still had to wash her pigs.

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