Alternative farms struggling with label


Harold Feaga is more relieved than most Maryland farmers that last summer's drought hasn't returned. That's because he has more to fear than do conventional farmers in the state.

Feaga used to own a dairy farm, but he switched to boarding horses in 1998 as milk prices declined and made it hard to earn a living. The switch has saved his 43-year-old Ellicott City farm from bankruptcy, but now Feaga cannot fully depend on government assistance during hard times, as conventional farmers can.

Despite its age, Feaga's farm is not recognized as "agriculture" by the state, which operates under a conventional definition that agricultural products provide "food and fiber." So during last summer's drought, Feaga received government assistance for his small herd of beef cattle but not for his horses, which he says are his major source of income.

Like Feaga, many farmers have responded to development and economic pressures by switching to more profitable alternative farming methods in which smaller plots of land, pleasure horses, nurseries, and designer vegetables and flowers can keep the farm viable, said Caragh Fitzgerald, Howard County coordinator of agriculture and natural resources.

This shift has changed previously agrarian counties to what are referred to as "metro counties." The traditionally large grain and dairy farms in these counties, which include Howard, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George's and, to a certain extent, Baltimore County, are no longer profitable because land prices are high and demand is low, causing the farms to shrink and disappear, Fitzgerald said.

Officials are having difficulty drawing the line between what is and is not considered agriculture as farmers depend more on alternative farming.

Bob Stewart, the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service agent for commercial horticulture in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, said some landowners seek tax breaks that accompany agricultural land and look for the broadest definitions of agriculture.

But there are legitimate alternative farmers who are trying to stay in the business and need support, Stewart said.

"We have to make the government and the common people understand that it's different than what we're used to, but it's still agriculture. It's alternative farming," he said.

Counties recognize alternative farming, but states and the federal government do not. And some farmers complain that locally, agriculture officials have not adjusted policies to meet the special demands of the alternative farmer.

Howard County farmers Jim and Linda Brown, who grow fruit, vegetables and Christmas trees on their 86-acre farm, said they have a hard time relaying information to agriculture officials from the University of Maryland's Agriculture Department, which is responsible for advising state farmers.

"It's really difficult when the UMD calls and asks, 'How many tons of potatoes did you grow?'" Linda Brown said. Because they are dealing with crops such as tomatoes and squash that are unique to alternative farms, the Browns have to plant them in stages with more than one harvest of a certain crop during each season.

A staggered harvest reduces the amount of labor needed, Linda Brown said, but it also makes it difficult to report numbers as conventional farmers do. And if the farmers cannot properly communicate with agriculture officials, they cannot receive the right aid.

The fastest-growing farm industry in Howard County is a "green industry" - consisting of nurseries and horticulture - which accounted for 71 percent of agriculture's total growth in Howard in 1997, said Ginger Myers, the agricultural and marketing specialist with the Economic Development Authority. These farms are more affordable and can yield a profit on a smaller scale, unlike those that grow grain and corn.

The equine industry is the second-fastest-growing agricultural industry in Howard County, Myers said.

According to a survey by the Howard County Economic Development Authority, the equine industry is a $140-million-a-year business for the county. Its growth had been monitored unofficially by the county until that survey was released.

Harford and Montgomery counties have followed Howard's lead by independently assessing the impact of alternative farming in the county instead of depending on state and federal reports that underestimate the impact of alternative farming, Myers said.

Despite Myers' findings that horse farming is a flourishing agricultural industry in Howard, horses are not classified as agriculture by the state or federal governments.

Horses have no agricultural value, said Dave Knopf, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's deputy state statistician in Maryland. They are associated with entertainment and so are not considered agriculture, Knopf said.

Feaga said that definition is outdated. He said he hopes state and federal governments recognize the changes that have been forced on farmers and alter definitions to be more inclusive.

"It is a little discouraging to know that we're trying to survive as farmers and aren't getting as much support" as other farmers, Feaga said. "Even though [boarding horses] is not a food-and-fiber thing, it's a viable income for us."

But federal agricultural authorities are unlikely to focus more on alternative farming because it exists in a limited area, Knopf said.

"At the local level, equine is a big deal, but if you expand [the focus] to the state or national level, horses don't mean that much," he said. "That may change, [but] currently the Howard counties and Montgomery counties are the minority."

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