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Volume 4, Number 1
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Vanishing Farms?

By Jack Greer

dump truck racing past new houses and kicking up dirt

Construction sites produce much more sediment per acre than farms, and development often alters natural hydrology — permanently. Photograph by Skip Brown.

Add to the loss of productivity in the Chesapeake Bay another loss, one tied to the character of the Bay itself — the decline in open lands, including both forests and farms.

According to an independent study by the Bay Program's Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, if trends of the latter part of the 20th century continue into the first three decades of the 21st century, the Bay watershed will lose another 2 million acres of forestland and farmland to development. Once land converts to development, it rarely reverts. The loss of open spaces and wetlands to impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots is often devastating for water quality downstream.

While a range of improved agricultural practices — or best management practices (BMPs) — should help keep farm nutrients and soil out of the Chesapeake, sprawl development that converts farm and forest land to housing subdivisions and shopping centers remains one of the toughest challenges facing the Bay restoration effort. Though farm fields are responsible for most of the sediment entering the Bay, for example, largely because of the huge area they cover in the watershed, construction sites produce much more sediment per acre, and development often alters natural hydrology — permanently.

The encroaching suburbs that bring more and more vehicles to roads once lightly trafficked may also contribute even more nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay — much more than initially thought. At this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Washington, D.C., Robert Howarth, a biogeochemist at Cornell University, presented some unsettling data.

Howarth found that the amount of nitrogen pollution from vehicles and electric power plants deposited into coastal rivers and bays (including the Chesapeake) could be up to twice previous estimates. The new study also shows that substantially more nitrogen — largely in gaseous form — is being deposited near highways and other urban sources, a byproduct of more population, more development, more cars.

The development issue resonates with farmers like the Brinsfield cousins Balvin and John. "We ought to keep people where people ought to be," John says. He is thinking of the nearby town of Vienna, which recently had a "visioning" exercise to consider how to rejuvenate its diminutive downtown. Land use planners often see the revitalization of small towns as the flip side of conserving open lands, since home buyers will build ever outward into rural areas, unless lured by the convenience, character and quality of life in town. If rural areas lose their character, John says, "Maryland will have more problems, not fewer."

This is another painful irony. Though agriculture is responsible for a large proportion of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that enters the Bay, farms themselves are part of the Bay's threatened landscape, as more and more sprawl development consumes farmland.

The two cousins firmly believe that sprawling developments will bring more challenges, both environmental and social, than the farms they are fast replacing.

"We have gutted our open space programs," says agricultural scientist Russ Brinsfield, and many agree. Year after year funds collected from real estate sales in the form of transfer fees and targeted for the purchase and protection of open spaces, farms and forests, are diverted to the general treasury, to help balance the state budget. According to Brinsfield and others, Maryland is losing its rural landscapes and its position as a national leader in land preservation.

There needs to be a dedicated account for those transfer fees, he says, as there is for the new fee targeted to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, the so-called "flush tax," which has its own dedicated fund.

Programs like Maryland's Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) and Rural Legacy program can't compete dollar for dollar with what developers can offer, he says. But these policies are important for farmers who don't want to sell their land. According to Brinsfield, public programs like MALPF and Rural Legacy give farmers a chance to sell easements and development rights to their farms so they can have a 401K [a retirement fund] without the farm having to be the only retirement asset. While these public programs may not be able to offer the $10,000 an acre that a developer might offer, he feels, they can offer enough to support a farmer in retirement while keeping the farm intact.

"These programs play a very important role," Brinsfield says, but adds that agricultural preservation programs alone are not enough. He thinks that in the end there will never be enough public funding to compete with the pressures of development, and that counties will have to show more leadership in protecting rural lands.

This is precisely the conclusion of a report prepared for the Maryland Center for Agroecology by experts in the Maryland Department of Planning. According to that study, county land use plans need to be in line with broader land preservation goals for the state, especially if they expect to get state funds from MALPF and other land preservation programs.

While land use strategies such as downzoning to protect farmland are seen by some as taking value away from potential land sales (an "equity taking"), studies in Maryland have shown that downzoning can actually lead to higher land values, so that the sale of less land brings the same profit.

At the same time, according to Rob Etgen, Executive Director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, once farmland begins to fall to development other farms nearby are more likely to sell out as well. Programs will have to target their efforts to the most critical areas, he says, "or we could lose everything."

The bottom line: if development trends in the watershed do not change, farming will become scarce in many parts of Bay country.

"All the benefits from nutrient management planning that we've achieved could easily be offset on the other [development] side of the equation," Brinsfield says. "All these efforts that Balvin and others are doing won't help, if we don't balance both sides."

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