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Local farmers find good things still come in small packages

February 19, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Sam and Pat Powell had just dropped off their last child at college in 1995 when they decided on a dramatic life change.

As they were returning home, they admired the peaceful countryside throughout the Midwest and decided they wanted a piece of rural America, too.

So the Powells, who own a Hagerstown construction firm, bought about 60 acres off of Ringgold Pike in northeastern Washington County and made plans to farm.

A year later, they moved into their new home and started raising beef cattle, chickens, ducks and other animals.

Sam had lived on a farm as an infant, but neither had a whisker of agricultural experience. He said they received tremendous help from county farm experts as well as neighboring farmers.

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One time, Sam said he was asked about his soil conservation plan.

"I didn't even know I had one," he said.

Despite the hard work, the farm brings far more satisfaction than his construction business, Sam said.

"It's just the land and the animals and trying to make everything fit together," he said. "You see what you're going to eat It's a cycle that's pretty self-fulfilling."

The Powells, who are both 52 now, said they eventually would like to give up their construction business and retire on the farm.

"The idea is to build the farm up and build our customers up," Pat said.

The Powells are part of a growing number of small farmers in the Tri-State area.

According to the 1997 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, which was released last month, the number of farms in the seven-county region that are smaller than 50 acres grew by 117 between 1992 and 1997.

The growth in small farms has many causes, according to farming experts.

In recent years, large farms have been divided into smaller farms by families who no longer have the ability or the interest in maintaining a large operation.

"As grandpop's farm is being sold, and the family cannot continue it, maybe they can only hang on to a small piece of it," said Don Schwartz, a Washington County agricultural extension agent. "The larger part of grandpop's farm is sold."

Those small parcels have attracted wealthy urban dwellers looking to escape their hectic lives for a pastoral lifestyle.

Washington County added three "farmettes" smaller than 10 acres between 1992 and 1997, even as the overall number of farms dropped by 41, according to the Agriculture Census.

Schwartz noted that a house in Montgomery County, Md., will bring its owner a sizable chunk of money with which to buy farmland in Western Maryland.

City-area residents jump at the chance to buy a house surrounded by nothing but green space. And a nominal amount of farming can net tax breaks, Schwartz said.

"Man, that beats the heck out of a townhouse," he said.

The economics of farming has made it extremely difficult for full-time farmers to make a living without off-farm income, according to extension agents.

As a result, only the most committed farmers can keep a 200-acre operation going from one generation to the next, Schwartz said.

Selling a large farm also can be difficult, unless a developer gobbles up the land and builds houses, he said.

As an alternative to selling to a developer, large farms are sometimes subdivided into smaller farms. Such properties can be sold individually for more than the price of one large farm, Schwartz said.

After working on other people's farms, Kenneth Smith bought a farm of his own in 1993. The 11-acre property is part of Elk Run Estate on Bakerton Road near Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Originally, the property was part of a 100-acre farm. The land was divided and 15 homes were built, creating smaller farms. Property owners must buy a minimum number of acres, which prevents a developer from turning it into a housing development.

For Smith, the grandson of sharecroppers, the farm life is what he always wanted.

"Growing up around farms and working on them, I just loved the atmosphere," he said. "I've always thought it was a great place to raise children."

Smith, 35, said he does not have a lot of land, but he added that he also does not need as much equipment as larger operations.

Smith, who raises livestock, supplements his farm with income from his U.S. Postal Service job. Although he does not produce the volume of commercial farming operations and large family farms, he said small farms make important contributions.

"A lot of small farms make up a good amount of the agricultural market," he said.

Beginners

The migration of urban residents to the farm has created a rising tide of beginning farmers. Many are buying up properties and joining the agriculture business with little or no farming background.

Eric Vorodi, an agricultural extension agent in Franklin County, Pa., recalled a New Jersey couple who moved to Adams County, Pa., a few years ago to trade their law careers for the country life.

"They drove their Mercedes to Adams County and grew organic garlic," he said.

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