Fewer farms dotting Tri-State area

December 04, 1997

Fewer farms dotting Tri-State area


Staff Writer

More than 600 farms disappeared from the seven-county Tri-State area between 1982 and 1992 and local agricultural experts predict U.S. Census figures for 1997 will show a continuation of that trend.

A drought this summer increased the strain on dairy farmers already struggling from stagnant milk prices and development pressures. Analysts said many farmers have been pushed to the brink of extinction.


Many farmers who have managed to hang on over the last five years say they doubt their children will want to continue the family tradition.

"I don't think he wants to rely on a milk check for his main income," Mercersburg, Pa., farmer James Burdette said of his eldest son. "Most (farmers) will tell you point blank: They don't want to encourage their children to stay in agriculture."

The trend alarms many analysts, who said the next decade could bring radical changes to the rural landscape that has characterized Washington County, West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle and Southcentral Pennsylvania.

"What's this county going to look like 10 years or 20 years?" asked Don Schwartz, Washington County extension agent. "By the time my grandkids have families, there might not be a lot of green space in this county."

Washington County lost an average of about 15 farms a year between 1982 and 1992, according to Agriculture Census figures, which are compiled every five years. Schwartz said statistics being gathered now likely will show that trend has continued since 1992.

Farmers point to two major obstacles - encroaching development, which drives up land prices, and flat milk prices.

Schwartz said farmers are getting about the same amount of money for milk that they received 15 years ago. But everything else, from farm equipment to labor costs, has jumped over that time period, he said.

"You can only become just so efficient until it just doesn't work anymore," he said.

The reasons for stagnating milk prices are varied, but analysts said it basically boils down to supply and demand. Improved production and increased imports have led to a glut on the market, they said.

The result, according to experts, is classic economics: With so many individual producers, farmers have little power to influence prices in a buyer's market.

"We are probably the only commodity where we don't have any say over now much we get for it," said Janet Stiles, a Boonsboro-area farmer who is a member of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association.

Schwartz said the economic conditions have forced farmers to work longer and harder for less money. It also has forced many to get other jobs, he said.

Schwartz said about half of Maryland farms have significant non-farm income and about 30 percent of the state's farmers work 200 days or more off their farms.

Morgan County, W.Va., dairy farmer Phil Harmison, "one of the endangered species," said the last year has been especially difficult.

Harmison, 63, said flood damage in 1996 and this summer's drought have compounded an already-tight situation. He said money for repairs, spare parts, labor and other costs must be stretched much farther.

"What we have to buy has gone clear out of reason That's where the squeeze comes from," he said. "We buy retail and sell wholesale. That takes a darn good manager."

To an extent, farmers have victimized themselves with improved efficiency, said Franklin County, Pa., extension agent Philip Wagner. He said technological advances have increased the per-cow milk yield.

"When that happens, it becomes more of a buyer's market," he said. "It's just getting harder and harder to make a profit."

Another big factor for Tri-State area farmers is development. Proximity to major cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., has driven up land prices, analysts said. That creates an enormous temptation for struggling farmers to sell to developers, especially when farmers' children do not want to take over the business.

The inflated prices also make it nearly impossible for farmers to sell their farms to other farmers, Schwartz said. Rather than buying their neighbors' farms to expand, most farmers have to settle for renting the properties, he said.

"That's the way most of the farms in this area are growing. It's just temporary," he said.

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