Kenneth Green, executive director of the Region 9 Planning and Development Council, one of five panelists to speak at the forum, had statistics that showed that the number of acres in all crops, from hay to grain to orchards, dropped nearly 17 percent between 1974 and 1992, the last year Census figures were available.
Agricultural land dropped off the rolls by 1,900 acres a year, he said. The number of farms in the Panhandle dropped by 73 from 1982 to 1992.
In spite of those numbers the value of agricultural products from the region increased by $18 million over the period to $44 million a year, he said.
Green said while some marginal farmers have sold out, the overall situation is not as bad as things may seem.
"There is still a relatively stable agriculture economy in the region," he said.
Marty Rice, former chairman of the Frederick County, Md., Planning Commission, another panelist, said there is an on-going grass roots effort to save farms in that county.
Frederick is the largest of Maryland's 23 counties with 425,000 acres still in agriculture, she said. The 1996 drought cost the county about one-fourth of its farms. The average age of Frederick County's farmers is 62, she said.
"A lot of them won't hang on much longer," she said.
She also said that younger people interested in farming can't afford the $12,000 to $15,000 that agricultural land costs in the county.
From 1989 to 1997 the county lost 2 percent of its agricultural land to developers, she said.
"Unprecedented growth is eating up our farm land," she said.
"Most farmers love what they do. If they make enough money they'll stay in business and our problem would be solved," said Shepherdstown resident Susan Nash.
William Grantham, a Jefferson County market gardener who helps run the farmers market in town on Sunday mornings, said the region is about 25 years behind in its effort to save farmland.
"If we don't start saving our green space now we'll become the asphalt jungle that the Washington, D.C. area is. When you lose your farm land and green space you lose your charm and personality. At one time Gaithersburg and Rockville (Md.) were quiet little villages like Shepherdstown," he said.
Other panelists were Louis Nichols, agricultural development officer for the Loudoun County, Va., Department of Economic Development, Lyle "Cam" Tabb, a Jefferson County dairy farmer and Jefferson County Planning Commission member, and David Dillard, president of the board of the Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle.
The forum was sponsored by the Quality of Life Committee of Vision 21: Planning the Panhandle's Future, a grassroots citizens group.