Maryland Farmers, Residents Debate Easement Termination

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Laurie Savage Maryland Correspondent

WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. — Residents who own homes adjacent to three western Howard County farms declared their love of great views and open spaces at a Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation hearing last week on a request to terminate the agricultural easements on those farms.

But brothers Steve, Mike and Mark Mullinix, owners of the farms, said neighbors are part of the reason why they want to get out of the business of farming.

About 125 people packed the dining hall at the Howard County Fairgrounds Thursday, Nov. 15, to hear testimony regarding the first request received by the state to terminate a MALPF easement.

The Mullinix family is seeking to withdraw a total of 490 acres from the state farmland preservation program they entered 28 years ago.

Lisa Derk settled on a home in August directly across the street from one of the Mullinix properties. She, along with other property owners who testified, said her real estate agent informed her the farm would always be a farm.

“Some said we should have done our homework. We thought we did. We thought we found our forever home,” she said.

But Nicole Mullinix, daughter of Steve Mullinix, said she recalled playing in areas as a young girl that are now swallowed by development.

“You ruined our view first,” she said.

MALPF Executive Director Carol West said more people turned out than were expected, and she was glad to see so many interested citizens.

“This is historic,” she said.

MALPF Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Stahl said nearby residents purchased their homes with the understanding that the farm would remain as such.

“The extent to which you will be impacted, we don’t know,” he said, as the lengthy process to consider the request gets under way.

“It’s about making a living,” said Steve Mullinix, who kicked off the hearing with a few comments representing his brothers and their families.

Paramount to the decision will be the brothers’ ability to show the farm no longer makes a profit. While any farm can turn a small profit, living off a small margin is not feasible, he said.

Mullinix went on to point out how over the years, higher crop sales are needed to purchase the fertilizer to grow them. He said ground is disappearing to development, shrinking their farmed acreage from 3,000 acres to 1,200 acres.

He also said moving equipment has become increasingly more difficult on today’s heavily traveled roads.

Marc Hereth said he farms 200 acres on a farm adjoining the Mullinixes’ property. He works full time and custom farms for others to support his farm.

“I travel these roads in a combine, it’s very difficult,” he said, adding that he has been hit three times this year on the road.

Some farmers at the information-gathering session said the Mullinix family should explore other options for the farm, while others said transitioning to different agricultural ventures is not an easy task.

“A deal is a deal,” said Joseph Cook, who also farms adjoining land.

Allowing the family to be released from their easements sets a “dangerous precedent,” he said. “There are a number of alternatives that could be kicked around and discussed.”

Ed Stanfield, a western Baltimore County vegetable farmer, said he went through a similar transition in his area. Wine involves a high investment and long wait to reap rewards, and other farmers who tried aquaculture went under.

“Give us the opportunity to survive,” he told the MALPF board members and staff, and loosen the reins as to what is allowed on preserved land.

Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Buddy Hance said MALPF started in 1977 “because of concern from the agriculture community about the loss of farmland.”

Over the life of the program, about $600 million has been spent to preserve 284,000 acres on 2,100 farms statewide. A long line of farmers are waiting to get in to the program that has seen a recent decrease in funding due to the economic downturn.

Only applications taken before 2004 contain the clause that allows a farm to leave the program after 25 years, Hance said. Those requesting to be released must show the farm is no longer profitable.

According to the MALPF program guidelines, profitable farming “means that an agricultural product can be produced on the land that can be sold to realize an excess of return over expenditures, excluding the cost of constructing farm structures, the cost of acquisition of the land itself, and debt service relative to the financing of the acquisition of the land.”

Hance said a decision must be made within 180 days of receiving the Mullinix brothers’ request to be released from the program. Howard County has 90 days from the date of the hearing to make a decision, which must be made before the state can make its determination.

Stahl said MALPF, the county agriculture advisory board, the county council and the Maryland Board of Public Works must all approve the request.

Two assessments of the land must be taken, and the amount the family pays back is based upon today’s market values, Stahl said.

“You have to pay back at today’s values,” Hance said. “The bar has always been set very high.”

Stahl said the hearing is just one step in the process. Other factors need to be considered, including the capacity of the soil, the effect of development on the surrounding community, the profitability of area farms and the availability of nearby markets for agricultural products.

Written comments may be submitted until Dec. 14 to Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, Maryland Department of Agriculture, 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21701. Attn: Carol West, executive director.

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