Calvert County Farm Bureau President Jason Leavitt presented the 2019 “State of Agriculture in Calvert County” address to the Board of County Commissioners on March 19.

Leavitt, who owns Wilson Dowell Farms in Owings, reported strides in the agricultural community and the farm bureau’s priorities to enhance the industry. He also stressed the need for land preservation.

“There are 269 farms in the county, which occupy approximately 32,901 acres of farmland. [It] represents 24 percent of Calvert County’s land base,” Leavitt said, sourcing his information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Agricultural Census, the latest information available. “There is $11.2 million of market value in products sold.”

Leavitt said the agriculture industry is an economic engine for the county, noting that between 2007 and 2012 there was a 90 percent increase in direct sales of local food and a 6,000 acre increase for the same period.

“In 2018, Calvert County produced a total economic impact of $15.7 million, contributing $1.4 million in tax revenue,” Leavitt said.

Agriculture is among the top 10 employers in the county as it supports 307 jobs, which the bureau president said “is a tangible substantive impact to our county agricultural sector to the local economy.”

The average size of Calvert County farms is 122 acres. Leavitt said the average age of a farmer is 60. Forty-five percent of farmers in the county are employed full time, while 55 percent have some form of other employment.

The farm bureau, which advocates for the prosperity of the agricultural industry in Calvert, has established three priorities in 2019: funding for land preservation, strengthening agriculture education and supporting economic opportunities for farms within Calvert County.

Leavitt said some of the benefits of preserving farmland is that it contributes to the “rural character” of the county, enhances natural resources through voluntary and mandated agricultural conservation practices, enables farmers to invest in their businesses, creates opportunities for younger generations, and limits needs for county resources in rural areas.

“Farms were the very first small businesses,” Leavitt said. “It is important for us to be able to preserve the farmland, because if there is no farmland there is no farm, and it’s going to be a significant hit to food production.”

Leavitt detailed the history of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, which was created in 1977, and Calvert’s 1978 creation of the Agricultural Preservation Program which utilized transferable development rights to achieve land preservation.

In 1992, the county established the Purchase and Retire Fund to remove TDRs from the market and preserve farmland.

In 1997, the state created the Rural Legacy Program as an additional land preservation tool.

“Those three programs are vital, functioning in tandem,” Leavitt said, noting each cover different areas and offer something different to reach the goal of preservation.

Leavitt said the PAR program gets a “bad knock” because people assume that it is an anti-growth entity.

Instead he said it is a growth transfer entity and that it limits growth, but other tools can also be used.

He explained that at its inception, the PAR program was market-driven based on supply and demand and without government support.

The valuation of a TDR was intended to be the difference between the agriculturally assessed value and the highest and best use value.

Between 1970 and 2010, the Agricultural Preservation Program transferred a lot of development, according to Leavitt. Farm Bureau documents report the number of housing units in Calvert County increased by 325 percent.

“It was not a growth-stifling entity during that period,” Leavitt said.

The county’s land preservation goal is 40,000 acres. Currently, the county has 25,827 acres enrolled in its Agricultural Preservation Districts and a total of 23,352 acres permanently preserved in those APDs. There are 30,649 total acres in both the county and state’s preservation programs.

Leavitt believes several key issues need to be addressed to ensure the vitality of the Agricultural Preservation Program, to include defining market opportunities for TDRs for density applications within town centers and other designated areas; ensuring the viability of land preservation to reduce development capability and restrict to agricultural use in perpetuity; and ensuring the long-term future potential of the preservation program.

“It is not viable if the people don’t see it as an option, then they are not going to use it. So, it’s not going to work toward the goal,” Leavitt said, hoping to change perception.

For the long-term preservation of the preservation program, Leavitt suggests the current and future commissioner board should use the program as a tool to help fulfill the goals of the Calvert County Comprehensive Plan.

“Another sort of wrinkle specific to the county program is if you sell one TDR, you’re locked in,” Leavitt said, noting that landowners enrolled in the TDR program do not often receive a fair value.

He said, unlike state programs which pay a lump sum for conservation easements, the TDR program is a piecemeal payment system where the landowner is paid per TDR sold, which varies by the market value at the time of sale.

“It is possible to sell all your TDRs at one time,” Leavitt said, assuming that there are willing buyers.

To rejuvenate the industry, the farm bureau supports consistent funding for and expansion of agricultural education within the county, their second goal. Currently, agricultural science curriculum is taught at Calvert High School. MALPF trailers, or mobile classrooms, provide hands on learning for students on food, fiber and fuels generated by the agricultural community.

“It helps drives home the point that farms are not just something you read about or see on TV. It’s something that affects your daily life,” Leavitt said.

The bureau looks to foster economic opportunities, its last priority, as the demand for direct marketed products, or farm-to-table, increases.

Leavitt said they are working with the county’s Department of Economic Development create marketing and sell opportunities and have recently relaunched the Calvert Ag website www.calvertag.com to do so.

Leavitt said the website was the brain child of Commissioner Earl “Buddy” Hance (R), before he was elected commissioner, to give the industry a boost.

“It’s been very interesting to watch, because of the Buy Local movement, this new generation of farmers coming to Calvert County.

In some are first-generation farmers,” Hance said. “The opportunities has provided for other generations to stay on the land and continue to keep those farm moving forward. It’s been very exciting to watch.”

@CalRecTAMARA

Twitter: @CalRecTAMARA