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Art Callaham: Remembering our ag heritage is vital

December 04, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

Washington County, plus most of Western Maryland and Southcentral Pennsylvania, has a rich agricultural and rural heritage. In this age of computers and technology, that heritage is often forgotten in spite of the fact that more than 40 percent of the land in Washington County is agricultural ground.

More interesting is the forgetfulness of our entire state, given that the Great Seal of the State of Maryland displays a farmer and a fisherman, not a computer operator and a government worker. Particularly in the urban and suburban areas, there is seldom a thought given to our state's rural and agricultural background.

I once met a lady who grew up in Baltimore. She had never seen a live cow. Sure, she had seen pictures of cows, and seen cows on TV and in film, but she had never laid eyes on a cow in its natural setting. And she was running for a delegate's seat in the Maryland General Assembly.

The old political adage in Maryland politics is: "Trees and sand don't vote." Sure makes a lot of sense when you consider the political clout, or lack thereof, of Western and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Seems to me the entire state needs a lesson in our heritage.

According to recent reports, agriculture remains the second largest industry segment in Washington County, with orchard and dairy farming leading the way. Today, our orchard production is second in the state behind, surprisingly, Kent County.

Until the Civil War, Washington County led the state in wool and wine production. Although I am not the most traveled person in our county, I don't recall seeing many sheep grazing in our fertile fields today. The wine industry locally, however, is currently in a renaissance.

Quite clearly, agriculture has been a primary industry in Washington County since its founding on Sept. 6, 1776. Washington County was formed from land that once comprised a portion of Frederick County. Lying west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and north of the Potomac River, our county's abundant water power, generated by the Antietam and Conococheague creeks, helped establish grain mills. These operations milled locally grown grains such as barley, oats, wheat, rye, corn and buckwheat into flour that was shipped to the population centers east of our area.

The abundant water supply, along with the fertile fields of the Cumberland Valley, contributed to large grain production that fueled the mills for many years. That grain production and the water-driven mills are distant memories, yet form a basis for our agricultural heritage.

Early in our history, our state's agricultural industry was somewhat unique. Southern Maryland produced tobacco; the Eastern Shore's primary industry was fishing, with agriculture in a support role; and Central Maryland was horse and cattle country. In the 18th century, in part because of land grants that created robust farming operations, Western Maryland was considered the "breadbasket of the Revolution."

Those land grants, provided by Lord Baltimore, proprietor of Maryland, wooed settlers to Western Maryland. Those settlers, primarily of German and Scotch-Irish descent, are the ancestors of many farmers still living on the land and tending its soil in Washington County today. By 1860, the total farm assets of Washington County was third, behind Baltimore and Frederick counties.

In pre-Civil War Washington County, slavery — although present and practiced — was a lesser blight than in most "southern" areas. Ten percent of the county's total population was listed as "black" with more than half of that 10 percent being "free blacks." These statistics are not ones to be proud of since the slavery of one person is more than abhorrent, but these figures do show a much more progressive attitude towards one's fellow man among Washington County citizens at that time.

Most of the statistical information above came from a document I received at a breakfast sponsored by our local agricultural heritage folks at the Washington County Ag Center. Agriculture remains a viable part of our local economy.  Our agricultural heritage forms a basis for what we know to be an exceptionally positive work ethic passed down from generation to generation.

When we learn from our past, we are more prone to not repeat the bad but rather focus and expand on the good. Agriculture continues to be good for Washington County and our state.

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Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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