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County needs to add to its agricultural base, not subtract

July 10, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

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On a jaunt through rural Franklin County, Pa., this week, we passed a Mennonite farm advertising fresh eggs and beef. Except that before the word "Beef," the farmer had penciled in "Grass Fed" and before the word "Eggs," he had added "Free Range."

I'm supposing that the farmer had made no changes in the way he raised his critters - raising beef cattle on pasture and letting the chickens run free. It probably was the way he always had done things. It is, after all, the more natural way.

But until recently, he never would have thought to advertise the fact. Over the past half-century, unpenned chickens and cattle that were not fattened on corn have been frowned upon in agricultural circles.

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But then one morning, this fellow probably woke up and discovered that grass fed and cage-free had become trendy. And not one to miss a marketing trick, he modified his signage.

While state and county governments all around us are waking up to the possibilities - both in terms of health and economic development - of the sustainable agriculture movement, here in Washington County, we're talking about more restrictions on farming. Namely, planners are considering a proposal to prohibit animal barns on up to 35,000 acres of county land.

No doubt the intention is good - it's the old "keep hog farms away from housing developments" paradigm. Chief Planner Stephen Goodrich said the proposal could, and likely would, change based on public comment. He also said, sensibly, that the regulations are only designed to steer agriculture away from development, not discourage it. That's good news.

But a fundamental change has taken place since these farm wars of the '80s. Today, the people who move to the country are more likely to want to get closer to agriculture, not farther away. Proximity to good, locally grown food is now a considerable asset, not a liability.

And from a supply standpoint, county officials might want to take note of the prices generated by food that's grown with care and conscience.

Sustainable is becoming more profitable than traditional. People east of here are perfectly willing to pay $15 a pound for top-quality, grass-fed beefsteaks. They do not balk at paying $4.50 a pound for chickens raised on fresh grass, not packed in cramped, unsanitary quarters.

We're hearing more and more about locally produced wine, artisan cheese and heritage pork. These are the niche products that eventually will wind up saving the family farm and make farming once again a financially viable enterprise for young people who want to stay on the land.

Unfortunately, however, our current concept of "animal husbandry" is defined by agribusiness.

The rule of thumb is this: Closely confined animals smell; animals that are free to range across a meadow do not.

In fact, the new trends in agriculture nationwide fly directly in the face of what we seem to be doing here. People in the suburbs and even cities, discovering there usually is no law against it, are raising a few laying hens or keeping a couple of goats in their backyards. It's easy to build a mobile chicken coop and grow a dozen broiler chickens in the average, quarter-acre lot, wheeling the pen to new grass and fresh bugs each day.

In fact, the goal should be adding to our agricultural base, not subtracting.

And it might become necessary.

For a while there, it looked as if people and businesses would flow across South Mountain in waves, turning us into some kind of quaintly industrious cross between Gaithersburg and Mayberry RFD. But with economics as they are, that scenario might now be years, if not decades, away. Land that had been penciled in for "urban growth" might grow only poke weed for years to come.

So to recap, we've lost our industrial dream. We're losing our high-tech, suburban Washington dream. The last thing we should be doing today is throwing agriculture on the scrap heap to boot because it's one of the strengths we still have going for us.

The countryside, be it farms, rivers, mountains or forest, is looking for all the world like our chief asset - just as tourism officials have been telling us for years. It's a lifestyle and an experience that can be attractive to people who want to escape the cities for a weekend, splash in some cold water and buy some healthy, locally raised food.

If the county planners' goal is to prohibit sprawling, factory farms, then by all means, full speed ahead.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com">opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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