Autumn for Farm Communities


Havre de Grace -- Minute by minute the fall begins. There are flecks of color in the woods. The air chills, condenses, leaves thick morning dew on the grass and takes on an autumnal sharpness and clarity. The swallows have gone. Groundhogs grow fat. An October column looms like the waning moon.

But the mood isn't as bright as it should be, to match this brilliant season. Perhaps this is because of all the recent rain? Not likely; the rain has been welcome after a dry summer. It has softened the ground and given a boost to the pastures. The cows are enjoying fresher feed and fewer flies. Their calves, about to be weaned and sold, are sucking as though there were no tomorrow.

Cattle buyers have been around lately, walking through the herd. "Those calves will weigh like lead," one man said. It was a compliment, but only up to a point. He meant that he wouldn't pay as much per pound for them as he would have for lighter calves. Makes sense -- lighter calves should gain more in the months to come.

The calves, right now, are our main cash crop. Prices aren't bad, but they'll never be high enough. To make our 300 acres pay what the accountants would call a reasonable return, we'd have to sell more calves than we can raise efficiently. We keep on trying to increase revenues and cut costs, but although the lines on the graph get closer together it doesn't look as though they'll ever meet.

I can't blame the cattle for that. Over the years we've grown corn and barley, soybeans and wheat, but on our hilly place these are break-even crops at best. We've raised horses, which is a high-risk business, and cattle, which are much more predictable. I'd switch to llamas and yaks if I thought we'd make any more money at it, but I've come to conclude that the cows are the best bet.

If your best bet's not good enough, though, you tend to think about unpleasant alternatives. The traditional approach is to keep on farming until the money runs out, then have an auction for the developers. A more fiscally foresighted program is to start selling off house lots sooner rather than later. Of course, that upsets a lot of people, including those who live on nearby house lots sold off by other farmers. They'd prefer to have the farm remain a farm.

A lot of effort goes into "saving" farmland. I've put a large amount of my time and energy into trying to do this, and will surely put in some more before I'm done. It sickens me to see houses ooze over the hills, and my impulse to preserve the countryside is as strong as anyone's. But there are times when I wonder: Save the land for what?

For the kids? Just about everyone who farms seriously these days, and is honest, is ambivalent about that. Farming is a good life, perhaps the best, and teaches important lessons. But few of us want our children to have to farm for a living. We want them to have skills that are marketable in the wider world, and that means first studying and then working off the farm.

There are strong emotional reasons for hanging onto land that's been in a family for a long time, but we all want to leave assets to our children rather than liabilities. A piece of land that can be farmed for profit, or sold for cash, is an asset. Otherwise it's either a luxury or a liability.

There are three kinds of people, in particular, who don't mind owning farms that aren't economically viable. These are rich people, speculators and those who don't mind commuting to jobs elsewhere. Though many who fall into one of these categories may be splendid human beings, when a farming community begins to fall into their hands, it's doomed.

Sometimes you have to look closely to see that. Rich people, who turn farms into estates, are often fine landowners. They keep up the buildings, mow the fields and are attentive to the local wildlife. They may rent some land to farmers who keep it in production. But they're not farmers themselves, and their farms survive only at their whim. When they decide to sell, a farmer won't be the buyer.

If there were more rich people than farms, most farms would become estates. But at the moment there seem to be more farms than rich people, which has different implications for the landscape.

The speculator-owners aren't into estates, scenic easements and wildlife refuges. They're the ones who burn the old barn down for the insurance money and let the fields grow up in multiflora rose and thistle while they wait for the new road or the new sewer to push the value up. They see land as raw material only.

The commuter-owners, by contrast, have their hearts in the right place. They care. But they're always short on either money or time, and often short on both. They can usually take care of five to 10 acres. If they have more, after a while they sell it off.

In a viable farming community, when a farmer puts a farm on the market, another farmer can afford to buy it, and does. Such sales still take place in Maryland, but within commuting distance of the big population centers they're almost unheard of. If farms are "saved" there, they're bought by rich people, by non-profit organizations backed by rich people or by governments. More commonly, they're developed.

As Maryland increasingly comes to resemble New Jersey, the impulse to save it, to hold back the tide, grows steadily stronger. But it's probably already too late to do much more than protect little patches here and there.

This is discouraging and gives rise to dark thoughts at an otherwise sunlit season.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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