Local farmers hope expo will aid in farmland preservation

August 04, 2002|by Liz Boch

Betsy Herbst and her family participate in the Ag Expo every year. Herbst serves on the Ag Expo Board, and three of her four children plan to return to the farm after college and teach their own children the benefits of farming.

That is, if they still have a farm to run.

The family has entered their farm into an easement program to protect the land from development. Herbt said, however, that losing the farm is possible once their time in the easement program is up, decades from now.

With that lingering thought, Herbst said the Ag Expo's job is to educate the public on the importance of farmland and curbing development.


"A lot of farmers, the last crop they grow is houses," Herbst, of Smithsburg, said. "If we keep building homes here, it won't be beautiful here. It's urban sprawl and we need to dig our heels in."

The Ag Expo Board this year has added events to attract non-farming families in hopes of teaching them the importance of land preservation.

Lizz Huntzberry, a Smithsburg resident and board member, said a Demolition Derby, a new professional wrestling event and a gospel concert may draw new visitors to the Ag Expo. Once there, newcomers may learn to appreciate agriculture.

"It's painful to see how many people don't understand how agriculture affects every single person on this earth," she said. "If you can teach a child how everything fits together like a puzzle, it may save the future."

There's no question that the county is changing.

Eric Seifarth, land preservation administrator for the Washington County Planning Department, said 21,884 acres inside what county planners designate as "growth areas" were converted from farmland to developed land between 1980 and 2000. Land developed outside growth areas within the same time span totaled about 4,830 acres.

As of June 2000, 118,374 acres of cropland remained in the county. Pastureland accounted for 17,162 acres and over 100,000 acres of woodland still existed, including park land, he said.

Of the county's 298,000-plus total acres, that means that the great majority of land has not been developed for residential, commercial or industrial use.

Seifarth said the county attempts to "direct growth to growth areas" and not near farmland through programs like the Easement and Rural Legacy programs.

The Rural Legacy Program protects land with significant environmental, historical or cultural value, Seifarth said.

"When you have conflicting agricultural and developmental uses, it creates problems," he said. "We're trying to keep from having 50-, 80- and 100-lot developments next to farms."

Yet Washington County's developed land increased at a rate of 180 percent, from 14,943 acres to 41,839 acres between 1980 and 2000.

No one in the planning department has a projection for how much land will be developed during the next 20 years.

Bob Arch, the Washington County planning director, said that only residential growth, estimated at 2 percent, can be forecasted for 2020.

Herbst said the county's quiet atmosphere could lead to its demise. The very quality that brings newcomers to the county changes its nature. Families move away from an urban environment to live in Washington County's rural setting and the county slowly loses its peacefulness, she said.

For Herbst, farming means slow tractors, loud machinery and the smell of manure, but some county newcomers don't understand the nature of the farming community in which they now live.

"Nobody wants to wait behind a big piece of equipment on the road," she said. "We need to educate them because they're talking out of both sides of their mouth. People are asking for organic fertilizer, but hate the smell. Organic is straight from the cow."

Not everyone is going organic.

Carolyn Crist, the 4-H Home Arts superintendent for the Ag Expo, said the department attracts young people from outside the farming industry because no animals are involved.

The Home Arts Department hosts cooking, sewing, arts and crafts and gardening projects judged at the Ag Expo.

"Even city kids can do this," the Hagerstown resident said. "The Ag Expo is more about the values you gain from it, not just the farming."

But one of those values is farm preservation, not just of land but of agricultural activities.

Seifarth said Washington County is formulating a "right to farm" law modeled after those in Frederick and Carroll Counties that would protect farmers from residential complaints about daily farming activities like spreading fertilizer, using pesticides and harvesting at night to avoid the heat.

The law would create a seven-member Resolution Board composed of people from both the agricultural and business communities to handle disputes.

"The idea is to provide an option before court," he said. "This gives the farmer a little extra protection from residential complaints."

The Ag Expo also helps to educate residential newcomers about the nature of farming, said Brooks Long, a 19-year-old dairy cow farmer from Williamsport.

"It's important to keep reminding the community that agriculture is a big part of the county," he said. "It was here first. I take pride in the fact that I'm still a farmer and I'm not going to stop."

Herbst agreed and said she never wants to see houses sprouting on her farm soil.

"The Ag Expo is the showcase for agriculture in the county and if people don't know what we're doing and why, we're sunk," she said. "It's hands-on and the kids will remember it for the rest of their lives, touching the cows and watching eggs being laid."

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