Robert and Nola Ramsburg had watched the subdivisions sprout all around the land they leased for a decade in Frederick County. First came Discovery, then Gladetown, Glade Manor and Greenbrier, until they were nearly surrounded and it looked as if the 213 acres where they graze their dairy herd near the town of Walkersville would go too.

The man who owned the land would sell it to them, but he wanted $2,000 an acre, double what the Ramsburgs could afford. But then a state program that pays landowners not to develop their farms paid him $1,000 an acre, or $213,000, for "development rights" to the land. The Ramsburgs came up with the rest, saving the land from being subdivided and keeping the Ramsburgs in the farming business for what they hope will be generations to come.

In and around the Washington metropolitan area, and especially in Maryland, a mosaic of such state and county programs has helped stem the march of urban development into the countryside.

Farmers, planners and public officials agree, moreover, that the recession also has contributed to the slackening of development pressures. While the economy has slowed the building and buying of homes, financially pressed farmers have applied increasingly to the program: The number of those seeking to sell their development rights jumped from 93 last year to 140 in 1982.

Farmland preservationists have reacted enthusiastically to what would appear to be a dismal economic situation otherwise. "You have to make hay while the sun shines," said Alan W. Kempske, a planning official in Maryland's Carroll County, where 17 farmers have sold their development rights to the state.

Although not a leading farm state, Maryland had 2.4 million acres in cropland and harvests valued at $827 million in 1978. Montgomery was the major producer in the Washington metropolitan area, sending its wheat crop overseas and across the nation. Dairy farms predominate in Frederick, where townhouses also have sprouted. Southern Maryland tobacco is bought by the Swiss. A thriving broiler industry along with corn and soybeans is a way of life on the Eastern Shore. All of this is within striking distance of megalopolis.

The 1970s were paradoxical for Maryland agriculture. Even in most metropolitan counties, where the cries of farm preservationists are loudest, acres in cropland actually increased, and so did the number of farms, although actual land available for farming continued to decline, but at a slower pace.

In an effort to assure the future of the farms, Maryland, in 1956, became the first state to enact a lower tax rate for agricultural land--a practice since adopted by 45 states. The farm assessment failed, however, to prevent the suburban sprawl that spilled over the countryside through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Restrictive zoning adopted later has helped.

The fight for government actions on behalf of farm preservation often was led by professional planners and by rural newcomers whose economic lifelines were to the cities but who wanted to preserve the pastoral scenes that in part attracted them to their new homes.

"A lot of this farm preservation is just growth management," said Thomas L. Osbourne, an Anne Arundel County planner. "Hold the land out until you can build a park."

"There's no way we can justify ag preservation strictly on the products, although we made a good sales pitch that one-third of our milk comes from our dairies," said Perry Berman, a Montgomery County planner, at a symposium on farmland preservation last year.

With all the right rhetoric but no money, the 1974 Maryland General Assembly created the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation to acquire easements "by purchase or gift." Only a single 58-acre farm was donated. Three years later, the legislature funded the program, one of only four such state efforts in the country.

Purchases began in 1979. So far, development rights have been acquired on 94 farms totaling 14,819 acres and $15.6 million has been appropriated by the state. Counties have committed $11 million more to the farm preservation fund.

"At first, I felt like I was beating my head against the wall, especially when I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge," said Alan Musselman, who gave up his job as a Frederick County planner in 1978 to run the state program. "Now there's a rather clear change in the level of understanding."

All but a handful of counties have created agricultural advisory boards, a prerequisite for participation in the state program. Nonparticipants include some Eastern Shore counties and Prince George's, which has relied on five-acre zoning exclusively to restrict rural develoment.

Eligibility for easement sale is a two-step process. First, farmers must ask to be included in "preservation districts" of at least 100 acres. (So far, 429 farms comprising 66,558 acres have qualified.) In so doing, they agree not to subdivide their properties for at least five years. Then farmers offer to sell their development rights to the state, bidding against each other for the limited available funds. Farms are ranked on soil quality and asking price but not necessarily on how likely the land is to be developed. After 25 years, farmers can buy back the rights, at their presumably inflated market value, and sell to developers, if they wish.

Half the state funds are allocated equally among Maryland's 23 counties, with the rest going only to those that provide matching money. If any county declines to participate, its share is spent in a second round of purchasing. Sparsely settled Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore has refused to go along with farmers' proposals to the state foundation, saying the money should go to areas under pressure from develoment.

In the beginning, farmers eyed the purchase of development rights warily, but the landed gentry took a different view. With other economic resources to fall back on, they submitted some of the earliest offers, resulting in some criticism.

Among the first round of recipients in 1979 was Albert Gallatin Warfield III, a patrician Howard County lawyer who received $298,850 for development rights to his 230-acre farm.

The transaction still rankles State Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore). "These are supposedly for the honest-to-God farmer," he said. "I just think we could've gotten more acreage for our bucks and preserved more farmland than that belonging to the 'in' crowd." Lapides thinks zoning should be sufficent to preserve farms, but others counter that zoning can be changed.

Does it really matter who owns the land, so long as it's saved? Edmund Cueman, Carroll's director of development and planning, thinks not. "Is this a program to preserve farmland or a social program to help the disadvantaged?" he asks. "Our theory is the focus has to do with preservation of the land."

Royd Smith, a farmer, real estate broker and appraiser, sees the program's purpose focused instead on the farmer. "The program's supposed to provide an alternative to selling to a developer," said Smith, chairman of the Frederick farm advisory board.

While Frederick County has limited participation in the program, Carroll County has encouraged it on the widest scale. With 17 easement sales and more than a hundred farms in districts, it leads the state. To assure that more farms are included, the county has earmarked $2 million of its own tax money for that purpose. In part, Cueman said, the county's commitment is to compensate farmers for a 1978 downzoning that allows them to built only one house on 20 acres.

While Cueman and others advocate more money from the state, Smith said there's enough to go around, for the endangered good ground at least. The limited funding, in fact, has forced farmers to bid lower to succeed in the state program--about $921 an acre this year compared to $1,486 three years ago.

The "general economic picture" is, according to Poolesville realtor Charles Jamison, "one of the reasons a number of farms are leaning toward getting into the agricultural zone, to salvage some money from their property before prices get worse."

To a few farmers, the state program sounds a lot like a subsidy, similar to other government grants not to grow crops. In this case, the crop is homes. "If you were gonna give your farm to your children, you could still get all this extra money to set you up, for something you wasn't gonna do to start with," said Robert Hardesty, an Anne Arundel County farmer. "That's not right."

Hardesty's ideological purity has few apparent emulators in the farm community these days. Whatever a farmer's intentions, whatever the likelihood of development, the money is there for the bidding.

Edward Schaefer works as an agricultural economist at the General Accounting Office and runs a pick-your-own strawberry and pumpkin patch near Poolesville. Earlier this year, he became the first farmer in Montgomery County to sell development rights to the state.

Charles H. Jamison, the real estate agent who sold Schaefer the farm, said "it's not very likely" to be developed because a high-water table and high clay content make it "extremely difficult" for the soil to hold a septic system. For his part, Schaefer foresees the day when self-composting toilets make other sewer systems obsolete and more land suitable for building.

Thompson Butz, a Montgomery stock broker turned farmer and a member of the agricultural advisory board that approves applications to the state, predicts the county will adopt stricter standards as more farmers compete for the limited funds. For now, he says, his board is obliged to pass along pretty much what comes. "I'm afraid the county would somewhat frown upon us not taking advantage of state funding," he explains.

Whatever would have become of his land, Schaefer said the $196,000 he received from the state has helped his family continue in farming. "We put almost all the money we got back into farm," he said, for a three-acre pond, irrigation, buildings, roads and drainage.

When he applied, the county was putting into effect a complicated new program that combines growth management with farm preservation. Farmers would be compensated by builders who would purchase their rural "development rights" and use them elsewhere.

"I guess we could've waited," he said, "but of course, you never know. Farming's a pretty risky business. This year, everything went against us. It rained 20 of the 28 days we were open for strawberry picking . Then hail ended our season the other week and we had a tornado."

TOMORROW: The planners versus Potomac, in the name of preserving farms.