Farming moves out of past, into future
Ag Reserve celebrates 30 years
The Agricultural Reserve has helped reverse the decline of the county's agricultural industry, but officials say careful planning is needed if farming is to remain part of the area's future.
Montgomery County is uniquely poised to become a regional leader in the burgeoning local-food movement, which maintains that buying food from local producers is better for the environment and economy. It is the only county in the Washington, D.C., region that has both urban areas with a high, unfulfilled demand for local produce and a large portion of agricultural land, according to a March report from the county's Green Economy Task Force.
But challenges remain. Development pressures continue to mount as fewer large tracts are available for building, and conflicts increase between farmers and residents of new suburban enclaves near agricultural communities.
"It just takes one bad business decision to slam the door, put the For Sale' sign up and you're gone," Ben Allnutt, operator of the 230-acre Homestead Farm in Poolesville, said at an April 22 panel discussion about local food hosted by the county Planning Board. The Allnutt family began farming in the county in 1763 and grows produce such as strawberries, apples and pumpkins.
The economic downturn has made it more difficult for farmers to get the loans they need to stay in business, and the county's booming equestrian and horticulture industries have been hurt by waning consumer spending.
"There's been a 50-year process [in the U.S.] of demeaning and denigrating farming as a livelihood, as a serious activity, as something that intelligent and hardworking people do," said Gordon Clark, project director of the nonprofit Montgomery Victory Gardens.
"I hear a lot from civic leaders talking about we have to bring in the biotechnology center, we have to bring in this new industry or that new technology," Clark said. "I don't hear an awful lot of them saying we have to rebuild the base of farmers in this county."
Agriculture contributes more than $251 million per year to the county economy and local farms employ more than 10,000 residents, according to the county's Department of Economic Development. A key to the industry's continued success is the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, a nationally recognized farmland preservation program, created in 1980, that restricts development in the rural upcounty.
The amount of farmland in the county fell from 213,004 acres in 1949 to 115,316 acres in 1978, a 45 percent decrease in less than 30 years, according to the economic development department. The Ag Reserve helped slow the trend the 2007 federal farm census, taken during a period of intense drought, reported 67,613 acres of farmland, and more than 71,000 acres have been preserved permanently, both within and outside the Ag Reserve.
"If the Ag Reserve had not been created we'd look like [Virginia's] Fairfax County," county Agricultural Services Manager Jeremy Criss said. "The Ag Reserve was one of the best environmental accomplishments in the county and the farmers will tell you that farming wouldn't be where it is today without it."
Appropriate zoning is critical to the survival of the county's farming industry, Criss said. For instance, wind energy generators are allowed as accessory structures on farms if they are less than 50 feet tall, but taller structures are more efficient. And a more readily available water supply is needed for farmers to produce more fruits and vegetables, he said.
The outlook is encouraging, Criss said. Programs that pay farmers to put their land into preservation have been successful, although government support for fledgling farms must take care not to hurt established businesses, such as Homestead Farm, that have found a way to survive.
Many local farmers have made costly long-term investments in recent years, he said, and the younger generation has taken a greater interest in working the family farm.
"I would hope that we continue to see a very diversified industry as we have right now," Criss said.
"I understand as an agricultural economist how agriculture is similar to all businesses. We change and adapt."