Correction to This Article
A June 13 Metro article incorrectly reported the horse industry's economic contribution to Montgomery County. The industry contributes about $84.9 million a year, not $196.2 million.

Making Hay in a Horse-Based Economy

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005

When Todd Greenstone began farming in 1976, he grew corn, soybeans, wheat and other traditional crops.

Five years ago, to cater to Montgomery County's booming equine industry, he started growing hay. Demand often exceeds his supply. Each week, he buys 1,000 bales of hay, mostly from Pennsylvania, to supplement what he grows on 350 acres in Brookeville, a northern Montgomery town. In five years, he's gone from 25 customers to 150.

"It's a good cash crop," he said. "There's a big demand in the area. It grows and grows. I'd say every two weeks, we hear of a new person with horses."

Maryland's vaunted horse racing industry has been losing foals and racing purses to neighboring states that offer slot machine gambling at the tracks, but farmland across the state is filling up with riding centers.

"The recreational part is definitely growing," said Dorothy Troutman, president of the Maryland Equestrian Foundation. "The racing is where they have the problem."

That growth seems most pronounced in Montgomery County, where 20,000 acres of farmland are devoted to horse farms. Dairy farms no longer dominate the county's agricultural landscape.

Horses not only outnumber cows -- about 12,000 vs. 2,201, according to county statistics -- they exceed the population of all other livestock combined. The demand for all things horse-related has boosted such other enterprises as hay farming, tack stores, veterinary services, even acupuncture, officials said. All in all, the horse industry contributes about $196.2 million to the county economy.

"We can sell to horse people and set our own price," said Greenstone, the hay farmer.

Recognizing this trend statewide, Maryland officials last month proposed creating a 500-acre equestrian center, complete with competition rings for dressage and jumping, stalls and possibly a museum. The Maryland Horse Industry Board and the Maryland Stadium Authority plan to seek legislative approval next year for a bond issue that would fund the state's portion of the cost.

So far, Cecil and Harford counties and Annapolis have expressed interest in housing the park. Montgomery already has a large equestrian facility, which it is expanding, as does Prince George's County.

Montgomery has the second highest number of horses in the state, next to Baltimore County, according to a census taken by the industry board and the Maryland Department of Agriculture in 2002. Frederick and Howard also boast thriving horse industries.

Montgomery County officials said the industry is a vital part of its 93,000-acre agricultural reserve, where development is strictly controlled. The County Council changed zoning regulations last year to include most horse operations among the agricultural uses automatically allowed in the reserve.

"The equine industry right now is critically important in Montgomery County, in particular because traditional agriculture, such as wheat and dairy farms, is not as economically viable as it once was," said County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty). "That is really the biggest growth market we're seeing in the agricultural reserve."

Like Greenstone, Eddie Burdette chose to capitalize on the horse industry when he sold his dairy farm and its 200 cows in Damascus in 1995. "I just didn't want to deal with it," said the third-generation farmer. "The profitability was marginal, and the labor was almost impossible."

He was working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. Now the 62-year-old works for Greenstone, raising hay, has weekends off and can take vacations. His old dairy farm is now a horse farm. "The dairies went out," he said. "Horse people are in."

The horse people come from all over the District, Maryland and Virginia, with disposable income to pay for lessons and equipment. Montgomery's nearly 2,600 equine facilities offer all types of services, including riding lessons and boarding. Many are run not by traditional farmers who inherited their property but by people who have never operated farms before. Many are "farmettes" of two to 10 acres, partly because huge tracts are so hard to find in Montgomery.

"There are an awful lot of people who, like myself, may not have been raised on farms but they have developed a love of horses, taken a few lessons and boarded some horses, and they get the idea, 'Hey, I'll open up my own place,' " said LuAnne Levens, president of the Maryland Horse Council.

They are people like Richard and Eileen Listrani, who were restaurant owners before they opened the 30-acre Walnut Pond Farm in Brookeville six years ago. Eileen Listrani, who grew up in Silver Spring, had always been interested in horses. They started with 10 horses and now have 30. They own a few of the horses, but most they board.

The Listranis said they have a growing list of clients who love to ride year-round. They recently built an indoor ring so their 35 or so students, most from Montgomery and Howard counties, can ride despite rain and snow.

On a nearly 90-degree day last week, daughter Allie Listrani, 28, watched as Sarah Seggel, 15, of Olney rode a former racehorse the family saved after it was injured. Both Sarah and the horse were tired after riding just a few minutes in the heat but kept going.

"Try again. That turn's hard," Allie Listrani said after Sarah missed a two-foot jump in the indoor ring.

Sarah turned the horse around and tried again, this time successfully. "There you go," Listrani said.

Listrani and her sister, Kara, 32, left other jobs to join what has become a lucrative family business.

They said they haven't regretted it. "It just seems like God was telling us to own a farm," their father said.


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