Planning needed to save farming, county says

Ben Allnutt's family has farmed in Montgomery County since 1763.
Ben Allnutt's family has farmed in Montgomery County since 1763. (Naomi Brookner/the Gazette)
By Meghan Tierney
The Gazette
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve has helped reverse the decline of the county's agricultural industry, but officials say careful planning is needed if farming is to remain part of the area's future.

The 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve, a nationally recognized farmland preservation program created in 1980, restricts development in the rural upcounty.

Thanks in part to the reserve, Montgomery is uniquely poised to become a regional leader in the burgeoning local-food movement, which maintains that buying food from local producers is better for the environment and the economy. Montgomery is the only county in the Washington region that has urban areas with a high, unfilled demand for local produce and a large portion of agricultural land, according to a March report from the county's Green Economy Task Force.

But challenges remain. Development pressures continue to mount as fewer large tracts are available for building and conflicts increase between farmers and residents of new suburban enclaves near agricultural communities.

"It just takes one bad business decision to slam the door, put the 'For Sale' sign up and you're gone," Ben Allnutt, operator of the 230-acre Homestead Farm in Poolesville, said at an April 22 panel discussion about local food, hosted by the county Planning Board. The Allnutt family began farming in the county in 1763 and grows such produce as strawberries, apples and pumpkins.

The economic downturn has made it more difficult for farmers to get the loans they need to stay in business, and the county's booming equestrian and horticulture industries have been hurt by waning consumer spending.

"There's been a 50-year process [in the United States] of demeaning and denigrating farming as a livelihood, as a serious activity, as something that intelligent and hardworking people do," said Gordon Clark, project director of the nonprofit Montgomery Victory Gardens, which promotes locally grown food.

"I hear a lot from civic leaders talking about we have to bring in the biotechnology center, we have to bring in this new industry or that new technology," Clark said. "I don't hear an awful lot of them saying we have to rebuild the base of farmers in this county."

Agriculture contributes more than $243 million annually to the county economy, and local farms employ more than 10,000 residents, according to the county's Department of Economic Development.

A key to the industry's continued success is the Agricultural Reserve, in which development is generally restricted to one home for every 25 acres.

The amount of farmland in the county fell from 213,004 acres in 1949 to 115,316 acres in 1978, a 45 percent decrease in less than 30 years, according to the economic development department. The reserve helped slow the trend: The 2007 federal farm census, taken during a period of intense drought, reported 67,613 acres of farmland.

More than 71,000 acres have been preserved permanently, both within and outside the reserve.

"If the ag reserve had not been created, we'd look like Fairfax County," county Agricultural Services Manager Jeremy Criss said. "The ag reserve was one of the best environmental accomplishments in the county, and the farmers will tell you that farming wouldn't be where it is today without it."

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