With their children not interested in farming, development springing up around them and farming just becoming harder as the years go by, the Mullinix brothers of Dayton, Md., see a bleak future.
But the fact that most of their land is preserved puts them in a bind — how do they make money farming while at the same time being restricted as to what they can do on their own land?
On Thursday, the brothers will be the first in Maryland to formally ask the state government to allow their land to be taken out of its farmland preservation program, something the government fears could open the door to other farmers doing the same thing.
“We’ve been talking about it for years. We probably started this process a year and a half ago,” said Mark Mullinix, 53.
The brothers have 490 acres that are in the farmland preservation program. They operate their business as a three-way partnership.
In most cases, once a farmer sells a development easement, the easement is permanent, protecting the land for future generations.
But in the case of the Mullinix brothers, their contract with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation gives them the option to ask the state to take land out of the program after 25 years, so long as they can prove farming is no longer feasible on their land and they get approval from the county and state.
Thursday’s public hearing, to be held at 6 p.m. at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Md., is the first step in a process that could take up to a year to complete.
The brothers raise field crops and forage that are sold to other farmers and through brokers, and run a 100-head cow-calf beef operation.
Two of the parcels in Dayton are contiguous, while a third parcel is six miles away.
A fourth parcel, which is three miles from Dayton and 142 acres, is also preserved but has not been included in their application.
It’s not that the brothers don’t want to farm anymore or that a developer has made them an offer — Mark Mullinix insists they have not been approached by a developer.
He said it’s just too difficult making a living in a county that has become increasingly urbanized and is no longer farmer friendly.
“We three love to farm, but we’re not going to make it in Howard County,” he said. “We are not in an agricultural county anymore. Howard County even calls it agritourism.”
The brothers also own a farm equipment business, J.D. Mullinix and Sons, on land that is not preserved.
“There have been a lot of years the equipment business has paid for a 1,200-acre hobby,” Mullinix said.
This isn’t the first time the brothers have created controversy with what they wanted to do on their preserved farms.
For 20 years, they leased a few acres of land to a landscaping company they never got zoning approval for.
After someone apparently complained to the county about the operation, the brothers had to formally apply for zoning approval, but the state found them in violation of their preservation agreement, since commercial businesses aren’t allowed on preserved land.
According to Mullinix, state officials told them they could have the business on the land so long as they owned it.
The owner eventually moved the business to neighboring Carroll County, costing the brothers money they were making not only in rent, but also in the straw and fertilizer they sold to the business.
With large homes surrounding the farms and increasing traffic on local roads, Mullinix said it’s made what were once simple things like moving equipment from farm to farm into a hassle.
There is little farm infrastructure in the area anymore.
The closest grain elevator is in Baltimore. But the brothers often find themselves traveling to either Shippensburg or Lancaster in Pennsylvania to make a delivery.
Collectively, the brothers pay more than $50,000 a year in property taxes on the land they own and the homes they have on them. And liability insurance, Mullinix said, has become “a killer.”
He said getting out of the program would allow the brothers more flexibility to make money doing other things on the land.
One of his brothers is interested in leasing part of the land for a vineyard and possibly growing a bean used in winemaking to sell to a prospective winemaker, Mullinix said.
There is also interest in once again leasing out acreage to a landscaping business.
“I think we’re going to try to stay in ag but get out from out of the state’s bum to make money,” he said. “If you look over the past 25 years, ag has not been profitable.”
Carol West, executive director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, is concerned this could be the first of many farms that request land be taken out of the program.
“Whatever the decision is, it will set a precedent, and our level of concern is high,” West said.
The Maryland law governing farmland preservation easements was changed in 2004, meaning any farm preserved after Oct. 1, 2004, cannot ask to be taken out of the program.
She said the foundation has preserved 283,000 acres on 2,078 farms statewide and 3,970 acres on 31 farms in Howard County.
It’s not clear how many of those farms fall into the category the Mullinix brothers are in, but she said farmers have to clear a high bar to get land taken out of the program.
The state has even hired Jayson Harper, professor of agricultural economics at Penn State University, to study whether farming is feasible in the area.
The bar “is high. It is purposely high,” she said.
Even though the brothers contend farming isn’t feasible anymore, West said laws governing preserved agricultural land have changed to the point where the brothers could pursue many other ventures on the land, including opening a bed and breakfast, starting a creamery or getting a vineyard and winery going. But she said the brothers haven’t expressed an interest in those things.
West said the brothers could also sell the land to another farmer, without penalty.
“We have to remember the purpose of the easement,” she said. “The purpose of the easement is so land is available to provide food for us in the future.”
Even though Mark Mullinix has two boys that are too young to express an interest in farming, his older brother, Mike, 55, has three children who don’t want to do it, while his oldest brother, Steve, 57, has two daughters who aren’t interested.
“They see us and the hours we put in and say they don’t want to do that,” Mullinix said.
He still holds out hope, though, that someone from the next generation will want to stay on the farm, which has been in his family for seven generations.
“If they want to get diversified and decide to stay here, we’ll be glad to sell it to them and work with them,” he said.