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Despite the rapid growth of St. Mary's since the mid-1990s, more than a quarter of the land in St. Mary's County is still being farmed.

The St. Mary's County commissioners took a tour of three farms this week, where they were told at one farm that development is still encroaching on agriculture. More funding is needed to preserve farmland, said Brian Russell, a Morganza farmer.

However, there is little money set aside this year to buy any easements to keep land in farming.

Russell and three of his brothers are partners and work each other's farms as well as others.

Brian Russell's land across from Chopticon High School has been farmed by nine generations of the family, Russell said.

These days, he said, “encroachment with development” is the largest concern.

There are fewer and fewer times to run farm machinery out on the roads from one farm to another because there is more and more traffic, he said.

“It's hard to move without hitting rush-hour traffic,” Russell said, in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evening.

More money is needed to preserve farmland, he said. “We can't afford to buy new farms,” he said. With development pressure coming from Washington, D.C., and from Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Southern Maryland farms are the “most vulnerable to development right now,” Russell said.

St. Mary's County government budgeted $1.67 million this year to buy the development rights to farmland to keep it in agriculture, as the state usually funds $1 million. The county funded $666,000 this year as it has in the past, but the state only funded $169,000 to the county this year, said Donna Sasscer, agricultural specialist for St. Mary's County government.

The members of the agriculture, seafood and forestry board requested $5 million more from the county commissioners this year, but that was not funded.

Commission President Jack Russell (D) noted there was an effort to boost local funding for agricultural land preservation earlier this year, which was denied by the majority of the commissioners. “We tried it ... we didn't get it done,” he said.

Sasscer said St. Mary's County government accepted 20 applications for farmland preservation funds, but could only submit eight properties to the state, though none can be funded this fiscal year, which runs until June 30, 2013.

Meanwhile, the Russell brothers also lease farmland at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and at Webster Field in St. Inigoes. Both sites were steeped in agriculture before the Navy moved in during World War II.

Since farmers were paid for 10 years to stop growing tobacco by the state government starting in 2000, local farmers are still looking to replace that cash crop.

The Russell family used to be one of the largest tobacco growers in the county, on more than 100 acres, said Ben Beale, St. Mary's County agent for the University of Maryland Extension.

Now the Russells farm 1,200 acres of grain, run a beef cattle operation, a hay operation and a nursery plant farm.

At Brian Russell's farm there are six greenhouses. Plants grown there are ultimately sold to Home Depot stores. “It's something you can consolidate to a half-acre and make quite a bit of money doing it,” he said. Some other local farmers are also selling plants to Home Depot.

The 2007 USDA Agriculture Census reported St. Mary's had 621 farms, totaling 68,648 acres of tillable land, 26 percent of the county's land.

Before the tobacco buyout, the county produced about 15 million pounds of tobacco, Beale said. The Southern Maryland region saw a record tobacco crop in September 1946 at 44.3 million pounds, newspaper reports show.

Today, St. Mary's still produces about 1 million pounds of tobacco a year, mainly by the Amish and Mennonite communities. Those farmers did not accept the state's tobacco buyout.

The number of local farms is actually increasing, but the acreage being farmed is about the same, Beale said. “You could be a full-time producer with 20 to 25 acres of tobacco,” he said.

In growing vegetables for sale full time, even less acreage is needed, about 5 to 10 acres.

jbabcock@somdnews.com