- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

BALTIMORE (AP) — Livestock in Maryland graze on some of the most expensive farmland in the country, according to a survey released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fueled by the red-hot market for development, the average price of an acre of Maryland farmland, including farm buildings, is up nearly 38.6 percent from last year, to $7,900. That is among the highest in the country.

Maryland’s increase compares with a rise of 11 percent for farmland in the contiguous 48 states — the biggest gain in nearly a quarter of a century.

“It’s a scary situation,” state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley told the Baltimore Sun. “It is a major threat to the future of farming in the state.”

Mr. Riley noted that the situation is scary only “for land that stays in farming. If a farmer sells his land for development, the prices they get are incredible.”

The USDA survey on land values was based on farmland being sold as farmland.

“In Maryland, that is becoming increasingly hard to find,” said Jeanne McCarthy-Kersey, deputy director of the USDA’s statistics service for Maryland.

When the land stays in farming, she said, it is often the case of “a millionaire buying a farm on the Eastern Shore and building an estate. He doesn’t want to be a farmer, but he wants cornfields … to create a buffer, so he rents the property to farm neighbors looking to expand.

“This way he can sit on his porch and look out on the cornfields,” she said.

In Delaware, farmland value jumped 40 percent this year to $8,400 an acre. Rhode Island leads the nation with farmland selling for $11,200 an acre, followed by Connecticut at $10,800 and Massachusetts at $10,300.

The trend is not limited to the fast-growing counties of the metropolitan area.

Mr. Riley called the rapidly escalating prices a major threat to agriculture. “The enticement to farmers is so great,” he said, “it’s hard for them to turn down the money.”

Mr. Riley said many farmers could sell their land, put the money into the bank and live more comfortably than they do laboring long hours in the field.

“And when they sell,” he said, “there goes our farms.”

Mr. Riley said the price of farmland makes it nearly impossible for young people who want to go into farming to buy the necessary land.

Census figures show that between 1997 and 2002, there was a 32 percent increase in the number of small farms, so-called “gentlemen farms” with sales of less than $2,500 a year. During the same span, the number of more traditional farm operations — those with sales of $10,000 to $100,000 — was down 26 percent.

Forty-three percent of the farmers in Maryland don’t count farming as their primary occupation, said Miss McCarthy-Kersey, but work as lawyers or plumbers or in some other occupation and like living on a farm.

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