Baltimore County has an impressive number of farms, 781 to be exact. The larger ones function as breadbaskets for the metropolitan Baltimore area, supplying the region's increasing hunger for locally grown goods.
Lately, as consumers have gotten more and more interested in establishing direct relationships with the people who grow their food — and as farmers have seen the movement as a way to stay afloat in increasingly challenging economic times — agriculture has become less wholesale and more retail. In two well publicized recent cases in Baltimore County, that's led to bitter conflicts between farmers who want to sell more of their goods on their land and neighbors who believe they're overstepping the bounds of agriculture and turning their farms into something more akin to supermarkets.
Residents living near Springfield Farm in Sparks have objected to proprietor David Smith's plans to enlarge his Yeoho Road farm stand, and In Glen Arm neighbors fought plans by dairy farmers Bobby and Pam Prigel to construct a creamy producing organic milk and ice cream.
After a long battle — two zoning decisions and court case — the creamery is up and running in Glen Arm. In Sparks Mr. Smith, recently won the preliminary zoning approval from the county to build a three-story, 6,000 square foot structure on his family farm. However, the neighbors, who contend that the stand is a retail store that would bring more traffic than rural roads were meant to carry, are considering appealing the decision. A written ruling is expected from the board this month. An appeal by opponents of the farm stand would further extend the wrangling, which has already lasted four years.
We say let the farmer build his stand. While Yeoho Road is narrow and winding, there are proposed safeguards against congestion in place. The stand would be open no more than 12 hours a day. Moreover, at least half of goods sold would have to be produced at the farm, preventing it from becoming another Wegmans. True, the three-story operation will be substantially bigger than the garage Mr. Smith and his family have been working out of for years, but it but will still be an operation selling locally grown goods.
Agriculture is a business. If you want to preserve the agricultural character of Baltimore County, you also have to take steps to encourage the enterprises that keep farmers in business. The county has the right to set reasonable limits on a farm's operation — and they seem to have done so here. But what farmers need is not just a county that will make reasonable decisions in zoning hearings but one that will find a way to guarantee that the next county farmer who wants to sell his goods on his land does not have to withstand a four-year legal battle.
Long ago Baltimore County displayed commendable foresight by severely restricting land from suburban residential development and preserving the area's agricultural heritage. These efforts have earned the county the national ranking as one of the top 10 jurisdictions in the United States for farm preservation. It has resulted in a place where the new paradigm of local agriculture truly has the opportunity to thrive — working farms are just minutes from the region's major population center. But it has also produced tensions between people who work the land and their neighbors who seem to like the idea of living among farms more than the reality.
Farms can be scenic, but they are not in existence just to improve the view. They are there to produce food that farmers sell. An increasingly important part of a farmer's livelihood, especially those located near large urban populations, is being able to sell his goods on site. Neighbors who live in areas zoned for agricultural are going to have to tolerate the new face of farming.