The milk house hasn't seen a cow in years. The dairy herds and their owners are long gone. But the old Solomon farm near the edge of Dulles Airport is flourishing again with corn and soybeans stirring lushly as planes swoop about 100 feet overhead.
Meanwhile, on Livingston Road in Prince George's County, only about 10 miles from the U.S. Capitol, the beans and greens and corn and okra fill almost 200 acres that sprawl behind the subdivisions. Several years ago most of the land was covered with brush, waiting, but now the vegetables grow densely and hundreds of people come to pick them, paying to do it, and then take them home.
"We figured we could make this land pay for itself," said Rod Parker, 35, an engineer and former Navy pilot who bought the land two years ago with his father and brother and is now farming it."We're able to earn a living as well as have a good investment.
"We like being out in all this," Parker added as he wiped his dirt-caked hands on the front of his shorts, "although sometimes I have second thoughts." h
After retreating for decades in the face of development, farming in the Washington area has stabilized since the mid-1970s, according to new U.S. Census bureau reports.
The amount of land being farmed in the area rose slightly from 1974 to 1978, the census bureau said. It was the first such increase since World War II as idle land was brought into agricultural production -- lured by tax breaks, higher prices, and for some the renewed attractions of rural life. The increase more than offset the continued loss of land to new construction, which slowed markedly.
But farming today on the edge of the suburbs, and sometimes in between them, is much different than farming used to be. The old family-owned, family-operated spreads -- often dairy or wheat farms -- are much less common. Instead, land is often owned by would-be developers or investors hopeful of profit, short- or long-term. The farmers who rent it usually pay little because property taxes are drastically cut when land is farmed, except in Fairfax County.
In other cases, large farms have been divided into smaller "farmettes," usually operated by part-time farmers who call themselves "sundowners" because they do their farm chores after coming home from city jobs.
Farm laborers have almost disappeared, replaced either by machinery or, as in the case of vegetables, by customers willing to pick their own. The crops themselves are changing. Since the early 1970s, corn production has boomed, despite problems this year from dry weather. Much of it feeds the chickens, whose numbers have grown rapidly on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Also, increasing amounts of local corn are sold for export through the ports of Baltimore and Norfolk.
Vegetable production is making a comeback -- either pick-your-own or for sale at roadside stands, farmers' markets or groceries. The price of local produce now can compete with produce from California or Florida because long-distance freight costs have soared with the high price of oil.
Horses are flourishing -- for riding by people who own the farms or by city dwellers or suburbanites who board their animals with farmers.
More and more farmers are part-timers. Some follow the traditional pattern of farmers' sons who take city jobs but hold some of their land as a hobby or investment. But increasingly others are moving in the other direction -- from factory or office to countryside.
"I'd had enough of the rat race," said Mary Jo Fines, 34, a chemist who used to fix nuclear submarines in Norfolk and who now raises goats, pigs, poultry, and vegetables on a 10-acre farm in southern Rauquier County. The land was covered with weeds before she and her husband bought it in 1976.
Her husband, Robert, is a Defense Department employe at Cameron Station in Alexandria. He helps with the farm work after his long commute.
"It gets pretty dirty out here," Fines continued, "and you have to get used to a lot of manure and sweat and ticks. But I don't think I could stand to live next to somebody anymore -- to have a neighbor who cared if my garbage can was brought back on garbage day or how much noise my children make . . .
"I'm my own boss," she said, "and I can schedule anything I want -- though if you've got a sick goat and a boy in the Cub Scouts you can't say you're completely on your own. But how many people can say they raise their own food? Out here you can really take personal pride in your own accomplishments. You can plan something and do it."
At the other end of the scale, William Brockett, who rents most of the farmland near Dulles Airport, farms thousands of acres in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, and Fauquier counties. Exactly how much, Brockett won't say, and there are no public records to tell because virtually all the land he farms, Brockett rents.
"With prices what they are, nobody could own [all] that land," Brockett said. Most of the owners are investors, he said, many of them Europeans, Middle Easterners, or Japanese, who "are going for the long haul."
More than half of it wasn't being farmed until he rented it, Brockett said. But if it is being used as farmland it is assessed at just $400 per acre instead of its full market value, which ranges from about $2,000 per acre up to $10,000 an acre for land near the airport. (The only large county in the Washington area without a tax break for farmland is Fairfax. According to the new farm census, Fairfax had less farmland in 1978 than any of the other large suburbs and was still losing farms rapidly even though acreage throughout the area had stablized.)
When the land is put to non farm use, several years of the tax savings (how much depends on the jurisdiction) are recaptured. But before the land is developed it strongly pays to farm. And the incentive has been getting greater as tax rates rise.
Although Brockett's company is called Virginia Beef, most of the land he farms is planted in corn and soybeans. Local officials estimate that Brockett may have 10,000 acres in Loudoun County alone, but he cultivates it with just several handfuls of employes -- plus massive machines to plant, harvest, and irrigate it.
"It's the same sort of modern, capital-intensive farming that you have in the Midwest," said one much-smaller farmer in Loudon. "It shows you, if you're smart enough, you can do it here even if the developers are lurking just a few years away."
Actually, the problems developers had during the mid-'70s with soaring costs, a sluggish economy, and slow population growth probably contributed to farming's stability. Throughout the area, the amount of farmland grew by about 2 percent to 592,999 acres from 1974 to 1978. The pattern of gains and losses in particular counties followed in reverse the pattern of development.
For example, in Prince George's County, where new construction drastically slowed, the amount of farmland increased by almost 3,000 acres after dropping almost 35,000 acres over the previous decade. In Montgomery and Fairfax, however, where more development continued, farm acreage continued to drop.
Farther out, Charles Loudoun, and Prince William counties all had net increases in farmland despite new development. In Loundoun, which is by far the largest farm county in the area, the increase was substantial -- about 7,000 acres. Fauquier, just outside the official boundaries of the metropolitan area, had an increase of 3,000 acres.
Calvin Beale, a population analyst for the Department of Agriculture, cautioned that some of the increase in farms, which is showing up in preliminary reports from other metropolitan areas as well as Washington, may be the result of improvements in how the farm census was conducted. He said the count appears to be more complete for small operators than it was in 1974, a point that Census Bureau officials say is uncertain.
"I don't think we can interpret all these numbers literally," Beale said "but I think there is some reality here. The conversion of farmland to houses is continuing, but I think there are signs of [farm] stability and growth that weren't present in the past."
"I've never bothered following the crowd around," said Fines as she explained why she had moved to a farm four years ago, "but there seem to be quite a few people now going this way. Call is back to nature or what have you. There are lots of people who want some land of their own."