Ed and Kathy Schaefer, owners of a 214-acre, pick-your-own strawberry and vegetable farm in Poolesville, have become the first Montgomery County farmers to be paid by the state in return for an agreement never to subdivide or develop their land. The Schaefers received $196,000 from the Maryland agricultural preservation program.
Another Poolesville farm, 300 acres of cornfields along River Road owned by Alfred W. Spates, is soon expected to receive a similar payment for an agricultural easement. Several other county farmers are applying for agricultural district status for their farms, the first step toward taking part in the state program.
The state has paid an average of $950 per acre for easements on 50,000 acres of Maryland farmland so far under the 4-year-old preservation program. At this rate, Spates' farm would receive nearly $300,000. To date, 326 farms in 18 of the state's 23 counties have shared more than $8 million in state funds.
Prince George's is one of the few nonparticipating counties. In the past, many Prince George's officials and farmers have expressed more interest in developing county farmland than in preserving it.
For the Schaefers, owners of the Innstead Farm two miles west of Poolesville, the $196,000 could not have come at a more crucial moment.
They bought the farm for $330,000 in 1976, but interest on the variable rate mortgage, then only 8 percent, last year rose to 13 percent. Along with a second $70,000 mortgage, obtainted to finance farm repairs and equipment, the payments have been "costing us more a year than my $35,000 to $40,000 government salary," says Ed Schaefer.
An agricultural economist whose family has been farming for more than 100 years, Ed Schaefer works the farm with his wife and an economist friend who lives in a tenant house. He also puts in four 10-hour days a week on flex-time at the Agency for International Development.
The couple and their two young children first offered the pick-your-own strawberries in 1977. The strawberry patch has grown to 20 acres and last June attracted 10,000 people during a strawberry festival. But even with strawberries and pick-your-own pumpkins, peas, sweet corn and raspberries, and even with some cattle, guided tours and hayrides for 6,000 school children last year, the farm still did not make enough money to support itself.
Fortunately, says Schaefer, the farm's real estate taxes, under the low preferential farm tax rates, are only $1,500 a year for 214 acres, less than many county families pay annually on a medium-size town house. The state payment will lower the estimated $471,000 appraised value of the farm. Because a future purchaser could not subdivide or develop the land, its only feasible use now is for farming.
Schaefer predicts that the money from the easement will enable him to make the farm financially successful on its own.
That is precisely the purpose of the program, says Alan R. Musselman, who heads the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Fund, operated under the state Department of Agriculture.
"This is the first agricultural easement in Montgomery, where there's a great deal of productive agricultural land that is not yet affected by urban sprawl. We hope we can preserve much of it," says Musselman.
The state preservation program and Montgomery County's new rural agricultural zone, which allows landowners to sell builders transferrable development rights (TDRs) that can be used to construct housing units in other areas of the county, are helping to place Maryland in the forefront of the nation's farmland preservation movement.
The state led the way in 1956 when it became the first to set lower tax rates for active farmland in an effort to encourage farmers not to sell their property to developers.
The Maryland legislature established the increasingly popular, but sometimes controversial, farm preservation program in 1977. The program will receive $4.4 million this fiscal year and officials hope to get $7 million in fiscal 1983.
The money for the agricultural easement program, which was created without its own source of funding, is coming from Program Open Space, Maryland's highly praised Department of Natural Resources program that provides funds to buy and develop park land throughout the state. This has upset some conservationists.
"We're very concerned in the Maryland Recreation and Park Association about the diversion of Program Open Space funds," says Robert M. Arciprete, legislation chairman for the nonprofit group of park and recreation professionals and a top planner for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Program Open Space is dependent entirely on revenues from the state real estate transfer tax, which last year produced $24 million, half of which goes directly to the 23 counties.
Arciprete said his group favors preserving land, whether for agriculture or parks, but does not want to see Program Open Space endangered, especially "since federal funds have dried up." The state has been receiving $5 million to $7 million a year in federal park funds, which the Reagan administration has anounced it wants to cut off.
One bill introduced in this session of the General Assembly would levy a 2-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes that would raise about $10 million a year for the agriculture easement program, but "the tobacco lobby is certain to kill it," said Arciprete.
Arciprete's group also has reservations about the agricultural easements themselves.
"Although they say the easements are in perpetuity, they're not. Farmers can plead hardship and buy out of them after 25 years, and hardship is defined as having other farms around you being developed."
Musselman concedes that this is true. But he says that such buy-outs would be extremely rare and difficult, since both county and state officials must approve each one "under stringent guidelines" and because they would be extremely expensive for farmers to buy back at fair market value. "We feel that in almost all cases the easements will remain in perpetuity," he said this week.
Stephen Harper, assistant director of the American Farmland Trust, which is helping to act as a middleman to expedite easement and other preservation programs for farmers, says "there is no ideal mechanism or technique for preserving farmland." One problem with easements, he says, is that they are expensive and few states can afford them.
Marion Clawson, a planner for the nonprofit Resources for the Future, which studies environmental issues, sees the easements as only "one of various efforts to preserve agricultural land that have not so far been very successful, since they have only preserved lands that weren't in very great danger of development in any case."
Emory Barge, one of Schaefer's neighbors who admits to having "not too good a relationship" with Schaefer, has complained to county and state officials, saying much the same thing about his neighbor's farm. "The land doesn't perk (drain)--that's why they call it Poolesville here--and really can't be developed anyway. It's a waste of taxpayers' money. It's a gift."
Musselman disputes this, saying independent appraisers found Schaefer's land eminently developable.
Most of the land around Poolesville, including both the Schaefer and the Barge properties, is in Montgomery's new rural agricultural zone, which permits only one house per 25 acres instead of the previous one house per five acres. To compensate owners whose land has been rezoned, TDRs have been given to the landowners, one for every five acres, which they can sell to developers. The TDRs allow developers to build on land in designated areas of the county, according to planners.
Schaefer, whose 214 acres would have given him 41 TDRs to sell, according to planners, decided to use the state easement program instead because the county program was developing slowly at the time. The TDRs are expected to bring about $5,000 to $10,000 each from developers, which would have meant at least $200,000 to the Schaefers if they had sold all of theirs.
At least 132 TDRs already have been sold on a contingency basis, awaiting the expected approval next month of the sector plan for eastern Montgomery, where TDRs may be used to build more housing units than permitted under present zoning. CAPTION: Picture 1, Kathy Schaefer and her son Zackary help with chores on their Poolesville farm. The Schaefers received $196,000 for agreeing never to subdivide or develop the property.; Picture 2, Ed Schaefer feeds the beef cattle on his farm twice a day.; Picture 3, Working on Innstead Farm: Kathy, Tyson, Zachary and Ed Schaefer. Ed also works for the government. Photos by Joseph W. McCary for The Washington Post