They won't let go of the land Farmers: In Queen Anne's County, a handful of young men defy the trends and the odds to continue their families' farms.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jamie Clough is 23, and has already mortgaged his future.

He still lives with his folks, puts in long hours at two jobs and rarely springs for a movie ticket. Yet he is more than $300,000 in debt, with nothing fancy to show for it.

All because of a single dream, a dream conceived when he was 11, on the afternoon he first climbed all by himself into a giant John Deere tractor, turned the key in the ignition and felt right at home.

"This is all I ever wanted to do," Clough says, surveying pale, long rows of wheat. "I just didn't know if it would ever work out."

On July 1, after months of hassling over loans, he will become the new owner of his grandparents' modest farm, 40 acres with two chicken houses, surrounded by the flat, broad fields of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Time was when the majority of young men in Queen Anne's County shared the same boyhood ambition. They grew up on family farms, handed from father to son.

They expected to marry and settle down after high school, perhaps buy some land of their own, and spend a lifetime milking cows and harvesting corn.

Nowadays, even in the most rural enclaves of Maryland, fewer and fewer farm children are following their forebears.

The same holds true across the country, as farmers age and their offspring find there's no place for them in the economics of modern agriculture.

The acreage is often too small to support extended families. The few who succeed usually inherit land, and even then, they may struggle to pay inheritance taxes or to buy out siblings.

"It's easy to over-generalize that young people don't want to farm anymore," says Howard Sacks, director of the Rural Life Center at Ohio's Kenyon College. "But unless they're fortunate enough to inherit their father's farm, it's incredibly difficult.

"The start-up costs are so high, and even with established farmers in their 40s and 50s, almost invariably one family member has an off-farm job to make it work."

Parents often are ambivalent about keeping their children from leaving the farm, he adds; they know there are easier ways to make a living.

So large numbers of family farms have disappeared since the 1980s, especially in densely populated states. Farming conglomerates bought some, but fast-developing suburbs claimed far more, from southern New England to Florida's Everglades and California's central valley.

The pace has begun to slow, mainly because there's less farmland, but the nation continues to lose some 2 million acres a year.

Maryland has one of the nation's oldest and best farm preservation programs. Yet, according to the American Farmland Trust, much of the state ranks with parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia as the region second most endangered by development.

Over the past two decades, highways, housing tracts and strip malls filled up nearly 800,000 acres of Maryland's farmland. The state lost 3,600 farms since 1976, 2,200 of them since 1990.

"It's almost impossible anymore to find someone selling a farm to another farmer, not for residential or commercial use," says Richard Dittman, a statistician who tracks Maryland agriculture statistics.

Much of the farmland that has been preserved lies in developed counties in central Maryland, while some of the richest property is getting bulldozed to the south and on the Eastern Shore.

Old farmland endures

On the eastern banks of the Chesapeake Bay, beyond the traffic-choked highway and outlet shops, Queen Anne's County still looks like the American heartland.

Farming has been a way of life for generations. First, there were small dairy farms; later came larger grain farms. Billy Riggs IV has settled with his bride, Doreen, into the caretaker's house on land near Centreville that's been in his family for a half-century. His grandfather, Billy Riggs Jr., started with 30 cows in 1948 when he bought the farm from an uncle. Today, Riggs and his father grow corn, wheat and barley.

"I'm like Dad," Riggs says, "and my granddad -- this is where our heart is." But for all of its deep roots, Queen Anne's farming tradition is disintegrating.

At 30, Riggs is one of only a few young farmers left. Most of the farmers he knows are at least as old as his father. The average county farmer is 63 years old.

Jamie Clough can count on one hand his classmates, of 340 who graduated in 1993 from Queen Anne's High, who went into farming. Even then, he recalls, the school's Future Farmers of America program had "hardly anything to do with traditional farming."

So few high schoolers had signed up a few years earlier that some talked of ending the program. It survived by reinventing itself to include horticulture, wildlife management and aquaculture.

Many students come from Kent Island, the sandy strip by the Bay Bridge that has largely turned into a bedroom community. The still-rural Centreville area is now on the cusp of the same development.

A developer recently bought the farm across from the high school, and a subdivision replaced the fields a half-mile behind the Riggs homestead. Billy and Doreen are about to get other neighbors: a golf course and 50 houses.

"It's going to be strange," muses Riggs.

Land that was once abundant, even relatively close to Baltimore and Washington, has become scarce. Suitable cropland in Maryland sells for $1,500 to $4,000 an acre, and as much as double that for choice waterfront property. To create a modest farm of 200 acres easily costs a half-million dollars.

Besides driving up land values, development is consuming acreage that was once leased for crops, increasing farmers' rent.

The repercussions go beyond money. Many of Queen Anne's farm families are beginning to feel hemmed in.

Accustomed to hard work

School is out, and Wes and Will Winterstein can see their summer vacation shaping up on a sunny, 80-degree afternoon.

The 16-year-old twins are baling hay. Will sweats behind the wheel of the tractor; Wes walks through the dusty stubble, checking that each bale is securely tied.

They're accustomed to hard work and little free time. Living on a dairy farm forces early decisions. Already, they've quit playing // sports after school in order to milk the 70 Holsteins.

Both are honor students, and Will had a teacher who suggested he would be "a fool not to go" to college and contemplate other careers. Both also know dairy farming is risky; with the fluctuating milk prices and low profits, half of Maryland's dairies went out of business in the past decade.

But Will is optimistic: "You can make it work if you manage properly." He also enjoys the feeling "when you see a job well done at the end of the day," and so believes he will remain on the sprawling farm near the Delaware border.

Wes wants nothing else.

"Dad has worked so hard to get his farm and make it successful," he says, "it would almost be an insult to the whole family not to."

Indeed, Billy Winterstein is counting on his sons. He has put in a new milking parlor and sold the state development easements to 750 of his 800 acres.

The state program, created in 1977, is designed to provide a retirement for farmers whose only equity is in the land. But like some participants, Winterstein pumped the money back in the farm.

Other farmers are reluctant to sell their development rights, for fear the land might command higher prices in coming years, or their children would choose another vocation.

Seventeen miles from the Wintersteins', two brothers at the other end of a life span have wrestled for hours, and even consulted a lawyer, over their dairy farm.

Willard Boone, 56, has gotten up since boyhood at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, except the time he was laid up with a bad back. He is ready to turn everything over to his sons, 26 and 21. But he owns the 350-acre farm, near Centreville, with his brother John, who wants to get out.

"I can't buy his half -- I don't have that kind of money," Boone frets, as he cranes manure into a wagon. "I could pass half on, but that's not enough, no way to support them."

Even if he persuades John to stay for a while, he fears they will have to break up the farm eventually. "The boys love farming, like me. But what if they work here 10, 15 years, and we sell? They'll be 35, and starting from scratch."

Farming has changed

Here, in the old shed on the Boone farm, it's easy to imagine farming as the all-American way for a young man to get started in life. But the impression is deceptive. The fields still bloom in the sunshine, but virtually everything else about farming has changed.

Everything, that is, except the price that farmers get for their product. Corn sold for $2.35 a bushel in 1975 -- and sells for $2.49 today. Grain prices generally soared in 1996, only to plummet this year; barley hit a 15-year low.

Post-World War II technology has swelled the nation's farm output. But while higher productivity and the international market have flattened grain prices, new equipment has steadily forced up overhead. Farmers complain they're trapped: They spend so much on premium fertilizers, weed killers and $200,000 combines that they have to till more land.

In 1974, Buddy Dulin bought a shiny, top-of-the-line tractor. It set him back $14,500. Last year, when he needed a new one, he couldn't believe his eyes: $100,000.

It had air conditioning, a radio and a comfortable seat. But those luxuries, and the markup, have made essential farm equipment almost impossible for the young to afford. At harvest time, he runs his combine for his son, Scott.

"If I charged him the going rate, he couldn't make it," Dulin says. "The work part of farming, compared to when I got started, is a piece of cake. But the profit margin is so low, it's a lot harder for these boys to get in."

For some, getting out makes sense.

By high school, Adam Cowgill was "pretty much bored to death," driving a tractor for his father in Caroline County.

"I like knowing you can make a certain amount of money all the time," says Cowgill, 17, who just graduated and plans to get into power washing, "not depending on the weather."

Craig Meredith is a year older and always imagined that he would farm. But his grandfather's place in Queen Anne's is not big enough to support Meredith too.

Instead, he fixes combines.

"It's the next closest thing," he grins. "Becoming a farmer, that was all I wanted to do, but I know it's not going to happen."

'This is a passion'

Against all the odds, a small circle of boyhood friends in Queen Anne's County found in farming their rightful place in life.

Now in their 20s, except the older Billy Riggs, they never left home. Three of the four work beside their fathers, just as they did as children. Three are single and still live with their parents.

They plant barley, only to see the price collapse, and corn, only to fret about a drought. They pray for sunshine, then rain.

"This is a passion," says Riggs, who schedules his life around the farm seasons; he married Doreen during the slow time in December. "I love planting and watching when everything comes up."

Jason Sheubrooks, 21, believes that for farm children, a love of the land is second nature. "It's just something you're born into, and you want to keep doing," he says.

In school, he and Scott Dulin, 22, decided farming had privileges that no other job could match. They like being outdoors; both hTC hunt in the fall. They like the sense of independence, of making decisions and not answering to a boss, except Dad.

But the friends grow nervous in trying to envision themselves 40 years from now -- as old as the average Queen Anne's farmer today.

"It means I'm going to have to take care of what I've got even better," says Riggs, who just lost part of one farm he leased to 90 homes. "You can't cut corners, because you can't go down the road and rent another 250 acres."

Dulin, driving his tractor past a cluster of new homes, thinks how he'd like to move out of his childhood bedroom. But he also is aware that his personal ambition may be futile.

"I'd love to ride up that lane and think it was all mine," he says, looking at the fields where his father grew up. "My, that would be nice."

Jamie Clough works as a hired hand for his friend, Riggs, and lays drainage tiles. He will have to continue both jobs and borrow equipment -- all for the privilege of getting up at dawn to check on the chickens.

"Since he was big enough to talk, he would say, 'I'm going to buy Pop-Pop's farm,' " his mother, Peggy, recalls. "Plenty of times, he could have been discouraged. But no, this is what he wanted, and he'll make it work."

In a few weeks, Clough will pack his few belongings into his 1984 Ford pickup and head to his grandparents' rancher. He will have what his friends dream of.

A place of his own.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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