Dirt-cheap doesn't apply to the soil of Maryland farms.
The state has the fifth most expensive farmland in the country, and its value is increasing at more than double the national rate, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.
The average price of an acre of Maryland farmland, including farm buildings, rose 6.1 percent last year, to $3,500. This compares with a gain of 2.9 percent for the continental states as a whole, where the average acre of farmland was valued at $1,050.
Only New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have more expensive farmland. New Jersey leads the nation. Cows there graze on pastureland valued at $7,100 an acre.
"There are a couple of reasons land is so high here," said Ray Garibay, director of the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service. "It's due primarily to real estate development pressures, urban sprawl.
"The fact that Maryland has a relative small amount of land, and a lot of it is located near two major cities -- Baltimore and Washington -- is another reason."
Garibay said the state's booming economy is another factor. "Urban dwellers are able to afford more expensive land and they are moving to the country. Farming is competing against home building, and that's driving up land prices."
To see what Garibay is talking about, Lawrence Meeks need only look out the front window of his 100-year-old farmhouse near the tiny rural community of Silver Run in northern Carroll County. There is a new house on the opposite side of Arters Lane, and the foundation of a second is in the ground.
A collection of small ranch homes perches on the edge of his 20-acre field of barley. He remembers when dairy cows roamed there.
Although his Arters Mill Farm is 50 miles from Baltimore, Meeks receives several inquiries a year from real estate agents wanting to buy up to 100 acres of the 167-acre home farm. He said zoning laws would allow for the building of 11 new homes on the property, and he is frequently offered $10,000 an acre.
J. Robert Frazee, president and chief executive of Westminster-based Central Maryland Farm Credit, the state's largest agriculture lender, called high land prices both a "blessing and a curse" for farmers.
He explained that it gives the farmer increased borrowing power to call on in hard times such as last summer's drought. It also helps them finance capital expansion.
On the flip side, he said, it makes it more expensive for them to buy land to expand their operations at a time when agriculture economics are pressuring them to grow to maintain their income level.
"That's the reason farmers rent so much land," said Meeks, who rents the majority of the 3,000 acres he farms.