Farmland at Risk


Agriculture is under intense pressure in this country, so it was not surprising to find Carroll County included in the dozen regions where farming is most threatened by urban sprawl, according to the American Farmland Trust.

Carroll residents have witnessed first-hand this threat to farming as over the past decade 17,000 acres of productive cropland were turned into subdivisions. The real value of this latest assessment is that it puts Carroll's plight into a broader context that adds a message of urgency.

Nine Maryland counties -- including Carroll, Baltimore and Harford in the Baltimore region -- are among the most-threatened farm regions, ranking just behind California's Central Valley, South Florida and the California coast around Monterey. They were among 20 counties in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey where during the past decade 300,000 acres of productive cropland were lost forever to houses, offices, shopping centers and parking lots.

Although this nation continues to enjoy a food surplus, the severe flooding now taking place along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers demonstrates the danger of concentrating agricultural production in just a few regions. Many farmers in the Middle West have experienced total crop failure in recent years because of too much or too little water.

In Carroll, even during the drought of two years ago farmers salvaged as much as half their crop. By turning fields into cookie-cutter subdivisions, however, we are losing not just green vistas, but our ability to feed ourselves.

To their credit, Carroll's public officials began an agricultural land preservation program 15 years ago. More than a fifth of the county's 100,000 acres of agricultural land is now permanently dedicated to farming. The county continues to be a leader in promoting preservation, but escalating land values have made the task more expensive. The loss of farms are beginning to heat up again -- 1,300 acres were sold off last year -- after the recession slowed the annual losses to about half that amount in 1990 and '91.

While zoning and land use play a role in saving agriculture, other factors -- ranging from global grain prices to a family's decision to pass along their farm to the next generation -- often determine whether agriculture will continue. But without zoning that favors agricultural uses, the pressure to develop prime farmland in metropolitan areas becomes irresistible.

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