Maryland's reputation as one of the nation's leading states for farmland preservation is expected to get a boost today when Harford County officials announce the addition of 16 farms totaling more than 1,100 acres into a preservation program.
The new acreage brings the amount of agriculture land that has been put into preservation in Harford County to more than 40,000 acres.
The announcement is scheduled to take place at the Woolsey Farm in Churchville, a 164-acre spread that is owned by Gene and Louise Umbarger and is one of the properties entering the program.
"This is an awfully big step for a farmer," said Louise Umbarger. "We are going on faith that our children and grandchildren will want to farm here."
Gene Umbarger, who has lived all his 75 years on the farm his grandfather purchased in 1918, said, "I want to keep this farm in the family. I don't want to see the land cut into houses."
The couple's son, G. Worley Umbarger Jr., is carrying on the family tradition and their daughter, Kate Dallam, the wife of a dairy farmer, also is working on a preserved farm near Bel Air.
Maryland agriculture officials speak proudly about the state's array of preservation programs, in which some 400,000 acres have been enrolled, a hefty total for a relatively small state that has just 2.1 million acres of farmland.
Jim Conrad, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, called Harford's efforts "a major accomplishment, particularly in a county with so much development pressure."
"This is an important step that I hope the county will continue," he said.
About 30 more Harford farms are on a waiting list for consideration in the program, which now pays farmers a maximum $8,100 an acre for their development rights, a price that is about 50 percent of the fair market value of the land, said Bill Amoss, Harford's agriculture preservation coordinator.
"These landowners are giving up their right to develop in perpetuity," Amoss said. "Even at land prices today, we have still interested 16 owners in preservation over residential development."
Payment for acreage depends on several criteria, including size, development potential and soil quality. The county's Ag Preservation Board, a panel of farmers, reviews the applications and ranks the farms.
Harford is well on its way to its goal of 55,000 acres by 2012, Amoss said.
"But we have about 90,000 acres that meet the criteria so we would like to preserve more and more land, if we could," he said.
In Carroll County, which expects to reach 50,000 protected acres this year, longtime preservationist Bill Powel made another point for those considering saving their land.
"As transportation and fuel costs rise, it will be more and more significant to produce food closer to population centers," he said. "Harford is part of a block of Maryland and Pennsylvania counties that are leading the nation in preservation and working together. Ultimately, this will be more of a blessing in the future than anyone can expect."