County not rural enough for Rural Legacy money


ABOUT 15 years ago during a visit from Birmingham, Ala., to see friends and relatives in Washington I was introduced to someone who remarked, "I wish I lived in the country." I think he meant it as a compliment. He said "country folk" aren't pretentious, and rural lifestyles are peaceful.

But I was offended, having recently learned that 'bama is a euphemism for "yokel" up here in the Mid-Atlantic. I quickly assured the man that I was city-bred and street-smart. Why, I didn't even know what a cotton boll looked like until I was well into my teens! He just smiled.

I have thought about that moment occasionally over the years. Mostly I have thought what an idiot I was to subscribe to the theory that rural is bad. Others have come to the same conclusion. Witness all the applications for Rural Legacy program funds by Maryland counties that want to save farmland from development.

Twenty of the state's 23 counties submitted applications that requested a total of nearly $130 million in grants. But there was only $29 million in the Rural Legacy pot. About $9 million went to Frederick, Montgomery and Washington counties. Baltimore County got more than $6 million.

Carroll County got some Rural Legacy money, as did St. Mary's County, Charles and Prince George's counties. Fourteen applications in all were approved. But Howard County's was not.

Why? The answer may be that Howard -- once bucolic, now heavily developed -- isn't "rural" enough for a farmland preservation program.

Howard officials may reject that notion. But they say they're otherwise stumped as to why this county's application wasn't among those approved.

'Spotty attempt'

Gov. Parris N. Glendening made the awards on the advice of an 11-member advisory panel. Without greater explanation, the committee said Howard County's proposal was a "spotty attempt" at agricultural preservation.

Such a comment initially seems ludicrous, given this county's having spent $60 million of its own money over the past 10 years to save 18,000 acres from development. But then you have to think, how much of that preserved land is actually being used for agriculture? Probably not much.

As County Executive Charles I. Ecker put it, you can pay a farmer not to sell his property to a developer, but you can't make him farm the land. Every year, the number of farmers in America dwindles.

As recently as 1954, according to the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 881 farms on 120,196 acres in Howard County. At least four each had more than 500 acres of crops.

By 1978, the county was down to 414 farms on 58,705 acres, but some farms must have consolidated because 17 had more that 500 acres of cropland and six had more than 1,000 acres each.

In 1992, there were 382 farms in the county. But the latest tally this year by Phil Gottwals, an agricultural marketing specialist for Howard County, showed just 275. Many don't fit the traditional image of a farm. Some grow cut flowers or medicinal herbs or ornamental shrubbery -- all growing markets in the 1990s.

Where'd the cows go?

A county that once boasted 600 farms with dairy cattle now has six. Under these circumstances, it's easier to see why Howard's request for "agricultural preservation" funds may have been scoffed at.

And it might not have helped that the county's original Rural Legacy application included the Smith Farm in Columbia, which county officials want to turn into a park, complete with soccer fields and other recreational amenities.

By the time the Rural Legacy grants were announced a week ago, the governor had already promised to give Howard County more than $4 million toward purchase of the Smith Farm. But those funds will come from the state's Program Open Space, not Rural Legacy. Another $900,000 in Program Open Space money is scheduled to come to Howard for other land preservation projects.

The message seems to be that it's fine for Howard County to ask for state money to save land from development, but don't try to sell it as "agricultural preservation."

Howard County has gone beyond that in the eyes of many. What was once a rural area between Baltimore and Washington is now viewed as one big suburb of both towns.

Accordingly, any land preservation will be only to maintain enough distance between all the housing and commercial FTC developments to give people a sense of rural life without their having to endure a rural lifestyle.

Not being a country boy, I probably won't notice the difference.

But as things proceed, I'm sure there will be some longtime Howard residents who will wistfully remember when there were real farms and real farmers around here, when the tractors you saw weren't mowing grass and livestock meant more than the family dog and cat.

Howard County isn't rural anymore. It never will be again. That may not be bad. But for some people, it's certainly different.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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