An Eastern Shore farmer said today that foreign ownership of Maryland farmland would lead to critical food shortages, deterioration of farm property, manipulation of food prices, a dropoff in farm jobs and a threat to American freedoms.

"Today, U.S. soil is no longer viewed as a new 'home-sweet-home,'" Kenneth Stonesifer, a grain farmer, told a Senate committee. "Rather it appears to foreign money magnates as a tool for economic opportunity at the expense of the people who have for generations lived on the soil."

Stonesifer, who lives on a 200-acre farm in Kent County, led a group of Eastern Shore farmers here today to testify in favor of legislation that would prevent nonresident aliens from acquiring an interest in more than 5 acres of farmland in Maryland.

The bill was introduced in response to the recent purchases of thousands of acres of rich farmland by West German, Dutch and Latin American investors seeking a safe have for their wealth. In Queen Anne's County alone, 20 farms have changed hands recently, bringing $8.6 million into the small Eastern Shore county.

The unprecedented invasion of foreign capital into that conservative pocket of Maryland has disturbed farmers like Stonesifer who fear that the high prices being paid for the land will keep their children from purchasing their own farms some day.

"If there is no future in agriculture," said Stonesifer, "there is no future. There must be someone left on the farm with the desire and ability to accept the risk involved in producing food. You cannot hire a farmer. He must be raised."

Once foreigners acquire Maryland farmland, he said, agricultural production will fall off, the new owners will stop hiring American workers and buying American products and, if the U.S. ever goes to war with one of the nations whose citizens own American farms, "the question arises what freedom and whose freedom will we be fighting for?"

The bill -- which would require foreigners found in violation of its provisions to give up their land within two years -- is opposed by some landowners who consider the legislation a denial of their right to sell their property to whomever they choose.

Senate committee members agreed to postpone action after the hearing until a state agency can report how much land has been sold in recent years and who is behind the purchases.