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Hancock sees potential for ag revival in Charles Co.
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
La PLATA, Md. (June 24, 2014) — It took David Hancock Jr. a handful of unrewarding years working HVAC in bland Washington, D.C. office buildings to point him back to the fields of Charles County.
He’d grown up on a farm worked by his family for nearly a century roughly 35 miles outside the nation’s capital and fled his agricultural upbringing when he reached adulthood, joining what’s been a continuing exodus of youth from American farmland.
“I couldn’t leave the farm fast enough,” he said last week, sitting at a picnic table overlooking several hundred acres of wheat, part of about 1,400 acres his family farms across the county.
But a yearning for meaningful work and opportunity to take the family farm in a progressive direction led him back to La Plata. Though he still works HVAC part time, he’s president of the Charles County Farm Bureau and intent on strengthening agriculture in a county where it’s withering and in need of more support, he said.
County officials “kind of look at us as something that’s dead and gone,” Hancock said. “But we sit in an area where agriculture could really take off and young people could really make a lot of money.”
It won’t be easy. After remaining relatively steady between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms in Charles County dropped from 418 with 52,147 acres to 382 with 46,659 acres in 2012, according to federal agriculture data. Nearly 500 county farms existed in the early ‘90s. Residential development has grown voraciously to a county total of about 57,000 housing units and more than 6,000 additional homes await construction, said Candace Quinn Kelly, president of the county board of commissioners.
Some money has been set aside to preserve farmland in the county, Hancock said, but it’s not enough, and with the state’s passage of the Sustainable Growth & Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 — known more commonly as the “septic bill” — farmers feel less secure about their value to local and state government.
The septic bill zones and restricts development on land across the state by organizing it into different tiers with the goal of limiting the number of septic systems leaking nitrogen pollution into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. In Charles County, under a map being considered, more than 170,000 acres — more than half of the county — would be placed under Tier IV, which limits development to one home every 10.6 acres. It is the most restrictive tier.
Because the law limits the ways in which their land can be potentially redeveloped, it can drive farmers’ property values down, in some cases dramatically. Hancock and other farmers have said they see it as a way for the state to keep farmland rural without reimbursing farmers who have cultivated it responsibly for generations in some cases.
“As much as we love the land and we would never develop it, we just don’t want the state making those decisions for us,” Hancock said. “The septic [law] is going to preserve farmland, but it’s not going to preserve agriculture.”
Other farmers who spoke with The Delmarva Farmer said rampant development and high property values in the county have made it difficult to expand, forcing smaller operations to grow only high-value crops such as vegetables, sod or, for a few, tobacco.
Retired farmer David Liles, 67, sees little of the culture or programs that used to feed the agricultural industry in Charles County and Southern Maryland when he was a teenager. When he graduated from La Plata High School in 1964, about a quarter of his class of more than 100 was involved in Future Farmers of America. Now the school doesn’t have an operating chapter.
“Then again, it was mostly farming in the county” in 1964, said Liles, who used to grow cut flowers. “Tobacco was king.”
Hancock said he thinks schools could be a good place to start.
Only 1 percent of food consumed in Charles County schools is grown locally, a percentage he said he’d like to increase dramatically.
The county also doesn’t have an agricultural marketer to push the county’s goods to buyers.
Kelly said she’d like to see other farmers work with existing organizations such as the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Council, an agricultural marketing, education and advocacy organization funded by the state’s multi-billion dollar settlement with tobacco companies in 1998.
“Charles County, I think, has been really slow to take advantage of it,” she said. “The Charles County Farm Bureau’s got to stop whining and start working. … We have to get positive. We have to get with it. People care about what they eat, and [Charles County farmers] have an amazing product.”
Hancock is starting with his farm. Though his father and uncle continue to run the family farm, Hancock and his wife, Kimberly, started an organic retail operation three years ago to raise produce such as tomatoes, watermelon, squash and cantaloupe, and they also sell beef, pork and free-range chicken.
He said business has increased by about 500 percent since their first year. Their Facebook page for Hancock Family Farms has 1,046 user “likes,” and it’s been their primary tool for growth along with word of mouth.
Last Saturday, the Hancocks had their strongest Saturday yet with about 65 customers.
“Right now, it’s very good supplementary income for me,” he said. “If things stay the way they’re going, it’s definitely going to increase much more than that.”
Some farmers, including Liles, said they’re unsure the county’s future lies in those sort of organic farming operations. But the area’s proximity to Washington and demand for the organic products he’s selling has convinced Hancock.
“We’re sitting on a gold mine in terms of geographics,” he said. “We sit in an area where agriculture could really take off and young people could really make a lot of money. … [Our customers] know we’re not using drugs or antibiotics. They know what they’re getting.”