Gathered in the back room of a St. Mary's County restaurant the other day, an aging collection of folks whose families have been farming in Southern Maryland for generations, even centuries, worried about how many will be the last of the line.
Estate taxes, low profits, labor and equipment costs, the decline of tobacco, the sheer drudgery of working the land and - most dangerous of all - the siren call of developers eager to pay handsomely to buy them out have drastically thinned the ranks of Maryland farmers and spell further losses.
"It's just a passing fad up my way," said Yates Clagett, 36, of Prince George's County, who gave tobacco farming two years before he realized maintaining the tradition of his Colonial era forebears meant he couldn't have his own family - or even a decent truck. Like many his age, he took a government job related to agriculture.
Enter city boy Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland's new senator, who told the gathering assembled by Southern Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer that he wants to help preserve their way of life, and hopes to do it through more generous federal help.
That's a tall order, even for these two longtime legislative pals who are now in perches of great power. But it's vital. Not only to maintain the unique culture of the region, where natives speak with a distinctive twangy drawl, but for the practical concern of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
Fertilizer and other nutrients washing off farms into the bay contribute 40 percent of its pollution. Yet farms managed with environmentally sensitive techniques, such as cover crops to absorb rainwater, are far kinder to the bay than development. Plus, they clean the air and provide wildlife habitat.
So critical is a thriving farm economy to the bay that the Maryland Farm Bureau and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have joined forces to promote their mutual cause.
Senator Cardin, a 20-year veteran of Congress and co-sponsor of a measure to boost funding in the federal farm bill for conservation measures, has seized on the link between farmers and the bay as a way to serve two key constituencies in the states.
Mr. Hoyer, as House majority leader, is viewed as perhaps even more pivotal because he'll have a role in squaring any new funds for farmers in the bay region with the Democrats' promises to swear off deficit spending. Bay advocates see it as a good sign that Mr. Hoyer is a co-sponsor - soon to be joined by Mr. Cardin - of a bill offered by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County that would target $260 million a year toward agricultural programs to improve water quality in the bay watershed.
Maryland doesn't benefit much from federal crop subsidies because its farms are small, and very diverse, especially now that tobacco is all but gone. So a re-emphasis on conservation programs, as long as it doesn't undermine those Marylanders who still depend on the crop aid, could be a huge gain.
Among the most important elements of any environmental farm aid effort is help with protecting the land from development. Programs at both the federal and state level have been underfinanced in recent years, sharply reducing the number of farmers able to sell to the government development rights that for many amount to their only source of retirement income.
Putting farms off limits to developers is particularly urgent in Southern Maryland, where proximity to Washington has set off a land rush.
"It's so sad," observed W. Micheal Phipps, a Calvert County farmer and president of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "You drive through Baltimore city and see all those boarded-up houses, then come down here and see these cookie-cutter developments tearing up the farms. Something is wrong with that."
Despite the pressures, though, if farming is truly in the blood, those committed to it will find a way to adapt, says Earl "Buddy" Hance, deputy state agriculture secretary, who switched his family's Calvert County farm from tobacco to grain and a greenhouse.
Indeed, Mr. Clagett is raising cattle part-time to pass down the farm tradition to his kids. For the kids, and for the bay. This is a way of life all Marylanders should help to preserve.