Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Horses, horticulture boost farm sales

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Reinaldo Thompson of Laytonsville picks blackberries with his wife, Helen, at Homestead Farm in Poolesville on Saturday. The farm is participating in the county’s Farm Tour this weekend.
Agricultural sales in Montgomery County have increased at a rate higher than in any other area in the state — including farm-friendly Frederick County and the Eastern Shore.

As farms around the county prepare to welcome thousands of visitors for this weekend’s annual Farm Tour, county officials and farmers say the lucrative horse and landscaping industries are driving sales.

A June report released by the county’s Department of Economic Development shows that between 1997 and 2002 all but seven of the state’s 23 counties saw a decrease in agricultural sales while Montgomery County receipts grew nearly 69 percent.

Newcomers tend to raise horses or start horticultural-based businesses, rather than try their hand at cash-grain crops like soybeans or corn, according to the report written by Jeremy V. Criss, agricultural services manager with the county’s Department of Economic Development.

Some traditional farmers who once dealt in dairy or livestock likely have turned to horticulture ‘‘for the higher payload and more return for your money,” said Patti Watkins, an employee of Poolesville’s Summit Hall Turf Farm since 1963.

‘‘You can charge a lot of money for a tree or azaleas that a farmer is not going to get for soybeans or whatever he’s growing,” she said.

‘‘It has to do with population,” said Robert Jamison, a longtime Poolesville farmer who farms soybeans, corn and wheat on 2,000 county acres, as well as 1,500 acres of timber in Montgomery and Frederick counties. ‘‘You can’t have a pick-your-own or a nursery out in the middle of Iowa because there are no people.”

Criss based his report on statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as data from the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. USDA statistics for the past five years have not been released.

Those statistics are likely to show that despite the healthy sales, farm acreage in Montgomery has continued its decline — a trend since 1949 — and that more of the county’s 577 farms ended their operations, Criss said.

‘‘That’s something we need to expect, given that we live in a community with a population approaching 1 million people and surrounding the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C.,” he said.

From 1997-2002, the county’s horticultural industry — 350-plus businesses including ‘‘pick-your-own” farms, greenhouses and garden centers — employed 7,000 workers and brought in at least $125 million in agricultural sales, a conservative estimate, Criss said.

Small suburban farms, an increased number of boarding stables, farriers and other equine businesses contribute to what is described as the ‘‘pleasure industry,” said Chuck Schuster, an agricultural outreach educator with the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension based in College Park.

The county’s equine industry tallied more than $85 million, including businesses that provide supplies, services and products to support the county’s surging horse population, while traditional farming rang in close to $42 million, according to the report.

In the 1950s, Montgomery County had ‘‘more fragmentation” in its Agricultural Reserve. Small farms were then bought and consolidated.

And now ‘‘you’re seeing another cycle — some of the bigger tracts being broken down into smaller ones,” Jamison said.

Experts speculate cash-grain farmers are converting soybean fields to corn, due to fetching prices and high demand stemming partly from the ethanol industry.

‘‘Nationally, we’re going to see a 20 percent increase [in corn production], and Montgomery County will probably mirror that,” said Doug Tregoning, a cooperative extension agent. ‘‘There’s probably going to be 10 to 20 percent more corn acreage” in the county.

Robert Butz, co-owner of Wind Ridge farm properties in Montgomery and Frederick counties, has begun growing a new type of soybean produced and packaged for tofu markets. Farming friends have ‘‘thrown sod into the mix,” planted peaches and begun making compost.

‘‘We do live in Maryland and Maryland is not Iowa,” Butz said. ‘‘We all have these urban pressures and we all just have to understand we have to adapt to that. ... I think what all of us are trying to do is just keep our operations fit and profitable.”