The Churning Point: A Farm Debate in Balitmore County

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

GLEN ARM, Md. -- Bobby Prigel seems like a poster child for the local-food movement. A fourth-generation dairy farmer, he wants to build a creamery to make organic butter, yogurt, cheese and ice cream. He wants to sell those products to consumers in nearby Baltimore instead of shipping his milk out of state. He wants to make enough money to pass on the farm to a fifth generation.

But some neighbors and conservationists are challenging Prigel's plans. Opponents, led by the Long Green Valley Association, say zoning rules prohibit his proposed 10,000-square-foot creamery and retail shop among the rolling hills of Long Green Valley, a designated rural conservation area. They also are suing the Prigel family's Bellevale Farm and a Maryland state preservation agency, arguing that preservation easements on the land prohibit Prigel from processing milk on his farm.

The case has pitted neighbor against neighbor and raised broad questions about the definition of agriculture. Does a creamery that makes butter and cheese qualify as farming or as manufacturing? And how much say should neighbors have in how farmers farm?

All 50 states have so-called right-to-farm laws, intended to discourage nuisance lawsuits from unhappy neighbors. But across the country, clashes are becoming increasingly common. Demand for local food has encouraged small farmers to ramp up production, which can result in more noise, dust, machinery and, if livestock are involved, unpleasant smells. The problem could grow as more farmers, like Prigel, turn to higher-margin foods such as cheese and jam that require processing. Their new mantra: If life gives you lemons, make $10-a-jar lemon curd.

In nearby Sparks, Md., farmer David Smith has been locked in a nearly two-year battle with neighbors over his proposal to open a retail shop for his pasture-raised meat. In Florida, surburbanites have sparred with citrus farmers over dust and pesticide sprays. In New Jersey, state agriculture officials this year published a 29-page brochure, "Farmer-to-Farmer Advice for Avoiding Conflicts With Neighbors and Towns," that reads like a 10 Commandments of neighborly behavior. (Under the heading "Get to know your neighbors," one farmer advises smiling at children when riding on a tractor: "It's like a parade for them.")

The Prigel family has farmed in Long Green Valley, a designated national historic district, for more than a century. Today, the 260-acre farm is home to about 180 dairy cows. In April, the farm became the only certified organic dairy in Baltimore County. The family sells milk to Horizon Organic, which transports it to a processing plant in Buffalo, then sells it under the Horizon label.

In the past, Prigel, 46, had sold his milk to a Virginia co-op. But it was increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Production costs crept up annually; the price of milk did not. The past several years have been a struggle, Prigel says. In 2007, the year the farm made the costly transition to organic, Bellevale Farm reported a loss of $103,000.

The creamery plan is "a do-or-die thing," he says. "If it doesn't work, we'll sell the farm."

Farmers across the state have faced similar hardships. The number of Maryland dairy farms fell from 6,700 in 1965 to 587 in 2007. Those that remain continue to struggle. Dale Johnson, a farm specialist at the University of Maryland, says that between 2005 and 2007, the average Maryland dairy farmer earned $68,500 a year. (Johnson has written a letter in support of Prigel.)

Urbanites' love affair with local and organic food offered a solution. Baltimore is just 30 minutes away. Prigel reasoned that by cutting out the middleman and producing butter and cheese, he could return his small farm to profitability. "If you are going to stay small, you need to add value to your product. Otherwise you're competing with someone with 5,000 cows in Idaho," says Kenneth Bailey, an associate professor of dairy and market policy at Penn State University.

In spring 2007, Prigel wrote a business plan that he says included a creamery to pasteurize and process his herd's 500-gallon-per-day production. He planned to make butter and ice cream and, originally, rent space to Cowgirl Creamery, which wanted to make cheese on the East Coast. (Prigel later discovered that zoning rules prohibit a farmer from leasing space. He says he now plans to make the cheese himself.)

Prigel says he ran the idea past Baltimore County agriculture and preservation boards and state preservation officials, who gave the initial green light. He submitted a proposal for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and received a promise of a $250,000 low-interest loan from the county. Prigel also says he showed the plan and an aerial photo of where the building would be placed to the Long Green Valley Association. On Sept. 27, 2007, the association wrote a letter in support of the Prigel creamery.

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