Montgomery County farmers who have survived decades of suburban sprawl are now warning that they might not be able to overcome the white-tailed deer that are eating large swaths of their crops.
"We need something to be done in the next 30 days. It's a must," said Billy Willard, a Poolesville farmer who grows corn, wheat and soybeans on 2,200 acres. "It's severe enough that if this problem is not turned around, I really think the county's agricultural preserve will be gone. These farmers will sell to developers and go somewhere else to farm."
County leaders say they understand the urgency.
Last week, more than two dozen farmers met with County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and state and county officials to begin devising a strategy to decrease the deer population in the county's rural areas.
Officials say they are considering a variety of options, which include expanding the fall hunting season, allowing people to shoot deer on certain Sundays and opening more public land to hunting. The county is also considering building a processing plant so harvested deer can be more quickly turned into edible meat.
"The farmers are telling us the greatest threat to Montgomery agriculture is the white-tailed deer," said Jeremy Chriss, Montgomery's agricultural services manager. "We all must work together to solve this problem, and it is going to involve a comprehensive approach involving the county, the state and property owners to identify ways to manage deer more effectively."
County officials hope to propose a plan within a few weeks.
Hunting and deer management have long been thorny issues in Montgomery County, which is home to the national office of the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals' regional office.
"We don't believe killing deer is going to solve this issue for farmers," said Mike Markarian, executive director of the Fund for Animals. "This is a very progressive county, and people want to deal with these humanely and constructively. People assume hunting is going to be a magic bullet, but killing a bunch of deer simply means the surviving deer are going to get more food and reproduce more quickly."
Yet Gene Phillips, who operates a produce stand and farms 10 acres on Shaffer Road in Germantown, said the deer population has forced her to quit growing sweet corn in the county. She now plants pumpkins -- which the deer still damage, albeit at a slower pace than other crops -- in Montgomery and grows corn in Frederick County.
"They don't have as much of a deer problem as we do down here," Phillips said.
Deer are also ravaging George Lechlider's crops in Laytonsville.
"I already planted my tomatoes over three times this year," said Lechlider, 83.
Paul Peditto, director of the Department of Natural Resources' wildlife and heritage service, said Montgomery's combination of suburban development, protected forest land and 77,000 acres of farmland makes it prime habitat for the highly adaptive white-tailed deer.
Deer have chewed through much of the county parks' forestland this year, exposing a noticeable "browse line," where most vegetation below a certain height has been eaten.
"They have eaten everything they can in the forest, so in the evenings they come and start in the farmers' fields," said David Plummer, district manager for the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Because of aggressive efforts to limit development in the northern part of the county, Montgomery remains a vital part of state agriculture. The county ranks first in the state for pumpkin and strawberry production and is in the top five for ornamental plants, peaches, sweet corn, apples and Christmas trees.
In July, Montgomery County sent questionnaires to the more than 500 active farms in the county to gauge their problems with deer.
Of the 200 farmers who have responded, 42 said they had stopped growing some crops, and 14 said they were renting less farmland this year because of deer. The farmers reported an average deer-related crop loss of 20 percent, but vegetable producers say they have lost half of the crop.
"The problem is getting worse and worse," said state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery), who helped organize last week's meeting. "One way or another, there needs to be less deer in Montgomery."
Garagiola conceded that it could be difficult for county and state leaders to agree on a solution that satisfies everyone.
Last spring, Duncan considered introducing a bill in Annapolis to expand the county's two-week firearms deer hunting season, but natural resources officials rejected the plan.
Peditto said a better option would be to allow hunting on Sunday during the firearms season. Two years ago, the General Assembly passed legislation that allowed Sunday hunting for the first time since 1723 in seven rural counties. Montgomery was exempt because local legislators believed the woods should be reserved for non-hunters on Sunday.
"There really is no difference in my mind between taking a deer on Saturday and taking a deer on Sunday," said Peditto, who said the county could increase its deer harvest by as much as 25 percent if it allowed hunting on the first Sunday of the firearms season.
Mindful of the intense opposition from animal-rights groups and outdoors enthusiasts, including equestrians, county officials said they will probably not support Sunday hunting. But county leaders say they are open to the idea of allowing hunting on more public land. Last week, the natural resources department began studying whether hunting should be allowed in more state parks in the county.
State officials have also promised to study whether to extend the department's crop damage program to hay producers. The program allows farmers to hunt deer on their land to avoid crop damage, but hay producers are not eligible.
Farmers are also pleading to have a processing plant constructed in the county so they have a place to take harvested deer. The crop damage program mandates that the slain deer be used as food. But farmers say the animals often spoil in the summer before they can get them processed at the nearest plant, which is in Frederick County.