Chickens and Eggs and the Importance of Strong Rural Economies

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Maryland’s agriculture and forestry industries were strong and highly diverse. By the end of the century, both industries were reeling. What happened, and how the agriculture industry is finally rebounding, is described in a new report commissioned by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, Inc. that I co-authored entitled “The Future of Sustainable Farming and Forestry in Maryland.”Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 1.39.26 PM

The report describes a number of causes for the huge decline in the industries, during which Maryland lost 60% of its farmland. One of them was suburban sprawl emanating from cities along the I-95 corridor from Boston to Richmond beginning in the 1920s and 30s and accelerating in the 1950s.
Why did farmers sell their farms to developers? Which came first the chicken or the egg? Did farmers sell to developers because they couldn’t resist the price offered or because their operations were no longer profitable?

We do know that farms were already struggling. Canneries were closing. Maryland production of fruits and vegetables declined as irrigation systems expanded in California and chain grocery stores began to aggregate foods from greater distances. Grain industry was replaced by larger operations in the Midwest. The forest industry waned as cheaper products arrived from the Northwest.

The report highlights what has changed since the turn of the century. The rise of the poultry industry has allowed the grain industry to rebound. The local food movement has created hundreds of little fruit and vegetable operations and helped larger operations to diversify. Meanwhile, residential sprawl has slowed in many counties. Maryland’s strong land preservation programs have certainly helped, but farmers are reluctant to preserve their land if they see no hope for the future.

Residential sprawl is very expensive. It causes governments to constantly adjust their infrastructure to the latest residential areas that are growing while older residential and commercial areas are allowed to decay, even as older pipes, roads, and buildings have to be repaired/replaced. Roads have to be widened. Commuters spend more time on the road than with their families.

My conclusion is that strong rural economies are essential for rural and urban residents alike. As long as rural lands are economically viable, owners are less likely to sell for development. As long as older urban/suburban community residents are satisfied with where they live, communities remain successful places to live and their viability continues. The report outlines steps for agriculture and forestry to
survive, even thrive, in the future.

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