Farming center in suburbia


It is easy to wonder what the University of Maryland's largest agricultural research center is doing in the heart of creeping suburbia.

J. Scott Angle, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says he gets about a half a dozen calls each year from people who have heard rumors that the university is planning to sell the Central Maryland Research and Education Center, which sits on 925 acres of prime real estate near Clarksville in the heart of rapidly developing Howard County.

But the university isn't selling. Instead, its researchers are busy redefining what it means to be a Maryland farmer at the start of the 21st century, working to improve traditional farming with better technology and following new paths of research into organic agriculture, environmental studies and horse studies.

Along the way, they are also making themselves useful to the broader public by exploring home and garden plants, composting issues and habitat restoration.

"We can't do our jobs without this land," Angle said. "We have no intention of shutting down."

A recent University of Maryland report predicted that the state could lose 400 of its 12,400 farms and 40,000 acres of farmland to suburban sprawl in the next decade.

"We have to find ways to do things more efficiently. ... What we want to do is farm smarter," said Robert Halman, an assistant state agriculture secretary and a former cooperative extension employee.

"As a farmer, I'm glad they are here," said Philip Jones, a dairy farmer in Sykesville. "We have so few farmers. ... We need continued research to be competitive."

Organic farming "is a growing market," said Frank Allnutt, the center's director, who noted that several organic experiments are being conducted in Clarksville.

Caragh Fitzgerald, a cooperative extension educator, and a research partner are trying out plants that can be grown organically between plantings of cash crops to reduce erosion and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.

The facility "lets me try new things without putting the farmers' land at risk," said Fitzgerald.

The Clarksville facility is home to the Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center, where people can call for help with their gardening, landscaping and other plant questions.

Some studies on the farm site focus on ornamental plants, such as a current experiment with azaleas aimed at finding predatory insects that will keep pest insects in check.

"We tend to define agriculture as food and fiber," said Tom Hartsock, director of the Institute of Applied Agriculture at the University of Maryland. "But recreating is as much a part of our life as other things we do."

Soon, the Clarksville facility will include horse studies for the first time. A pasture has been set up with funding from the Maryland Horse Industry Board in preparation for a horse grazing study, and researchers are seeking more funding to proceed. It is part of a larger expansion of equine studies at the university.

"There are close to 100,000 horses in the state," said Hartsock. "It is not a segment of the state's agriculture we can ignore."

Environmental studies have also found a home at Clarksville and other university facilities. At Clarksville, composting research, using wetlands to break down the nutrients in waste from the dairy parlor and restoring wetlands along the Middle Patuxent River are all components.

At the core of the Howard farm's research is a focus on improving traditional farm products, such as testing new varieties of alfalfa, corn, small grains, soybeans, and forage (plants that animals feed on).

It conducts pest control experiments. And, with 200 head of cattle - the entire University of Maryland's dairy herd since a second group of cows moved from the College Park campus in the 1980s - it is the state center for dairy research.

The Clarksville center is the largest link in a chain of 10 agricultural research facilities managed by College of Agriculture and Natural Resources' Maryland Agricultural Experiment station.

In 2000, the station used $12.1 million in state funds, $5.1 million from federal and other sources, and $10 million in grants to meet its research and education goals.

The centers provide a variety of research, from the Keedysville facility in Western Maryland, with its tree fruit, corn and other crops, to the several Eastern Shore locations with poultry, swine and beef herds.

These other stations are also looking to the future. At the Upper Marlboro facility, researchers are looking for alternatives to growing tobacco in Maryland, trying such replacements as flowers, exotic fruit, hardwood trees and ostriches.

Another facility on the edge of the College Park campus focuses on turf grass for golf courses and playing fields.

Though the Clarksville farm sits on the edge of suburbia, it has been farmland for nearly 300 years, almost as long as there has been farming in Maryland.

The land originally belonged to Charles Carroll of Ireland, whose son, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, signed the Declaration of Independence. It remained farmland through 1951, when the state purchased the land to produce and process milk for state mental hospitals,

Six years later, the farm was transferred to the University of Maryland as a research facility, provided that it continue to produce milk for the hospitals, which it did until the 1980s.

The research mission of Clarksville stems from the University of Maryland's founding as a land grant school for agricultural education.

And Angle said it will continue into the future: "We are here to stay."

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