When it looked like development was coming to the rural farmland surrounding Earleville last year, alarm spread through the community.

Two farms, which contained a “grandfathered” subdivision under old zoning, were going up for sale. Soon, people feared, 84 new houses would crop up in fields around the village on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

To stop that, people allied themselves with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. In just six weeks, local volunteers raised the $450,000 needed to buy the farms from more than 150 contributors.

“The community put the money up to save the farm,” said Rob Etgen, executive director of the conservancy. “And these are not wealthy people.”

After putting easements on the property that block future development, the conservancy recently put the land back up for sale. Instead of commuters moving in, the new owners will be Amish farmers from Lancaster County, PA.

While sprawl is claiming farms around the region, Etgen’s group is working with local governments and other organizations to show that farming has a long-term future on the Eastern Shore. They have targeted roughly a half-million acres of prime Delmarva Peninsula land they would like to forever preserve for growing crops, not houses and shopping centers.

As a consequence, the Amish haven’t been the only people moving in. Farmers who have given up in other fast-growing areas have been buying land in what Etgen calls the “agricultural security corridor.”

“It’s anecdotal, but we are seeing an increased incidence in the last three years or so of farmers from Pennsylvania, new Jersey and Delaware trying to buy into agriculture in this region,” Etgen said.

The reason, Etgen and others suggest, is that saving farmland is more than just a matter of saving individual farms. It requires a commitment to saving large, contiguous tracts so an area’s agricultural economy remains viable.

Therein, he and others suggest, lies an important message as the Bay states consider how to meet their Chesapeake 2000 Agreement goals of reducing sprawl and preserving forests and farms. It’s not simply a matter of how much land is preserved for agriculture — but how that land is preserved.

They need to start thinking not just about preserving open space, but how they preserve that open space as a valuable working landscape,” said Russell Brinsfield, executive director of the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, and a board member of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.

Research shows that when a large tract of forest is fragmented by development, it becomes more prone to disease, the value of its habitat declines, it is overrun by exotic pests and the forest’s overall health declines — often to the point where it is no longer economically viable for forestry.

A similar thing happens when agricultural areas are broken by scattered developments. Suddenly, new neighbors complain about the smell from the farm next door and become angry when they are stuck behind a slow-moving tractor.

“People who are new to the area get impatient, make rude gestures at the farmers and tailgate them,” said Todd Vigland, a planner with the conservancy. “These guys, psychologically, get fed up.”

As sprawl moves into the neighborhood, research shows that farmers begin to reduce their spending on equipment and other necessities out of concern they won’t pay off. “Investment declines as sprawl increases because people see the end of the era for agriculture,” Etgen said. That launches a downward economic spiral which eventually can lead to the farmer deciding that it’s time to sell out.

It has a ripple effect. As farms in an area disappear, it triggers a decline in the farming “infrastructure” — there is less demand for everything from grain and tractor dealers to veterinarians and repair service. That tends to raise prices for remaining farmers, causing more to give up. Gradually, the support network fades, and the economic viability of farming gradually disappears for a whole region.

The Eastern Shore had largely avoided that fate until the past two decades when commuters from Baltimore and Washington — taking advantage of the Bay Bridge — began moving onto farmland.

From 1985 to 1990, Queen Anne’s County — just over the bridge — had 77 percent of its new homes built on land that had been zoned for agriculture or conservation.

To help counter that, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy was formed in 1990 with the specific mission of saving as much farmland as it could. Drawing a line on development could be mission impossible, though. So the group decided to see where it should prioritize its efforts. In the early 1990s, the conservancy made an inventory of the Eastern Shore resources that included everything from soil type, to forests, to historic sites.

But one thing stuck out when the regional map was completed: The best agricultural soils on the Eastern Shore radiated out from the “spine” of the Delmarva Peninsula to around Route 50 on its western side — the road beachgoers take from the Western Shore to ocean resorts.

Not only were the soils high quality, but it was the largest block of unbroken farmland remaining in the entire Mid-Atlantic region, Etgen said. The five counties in the area produce more than half of Maryland’s soybeans, wheat, commercial vegetables and melons, and nearly half of its corn.

The conservancy began referring to the massive 500,000 acre area as the “agricultural security corridor,” and touting the importance of preserving it for the local economy. The group has made the corridor a major focus of its land protection activities, and has worked with local counties to develop new zoning that will protect the area.

It also helped stimulate state action. Maryland’s Rural Legacy Program — in which the state helps to fund the protection of large, contiguous tracts of land in locally designated “legacy” areas — has its roots in the agricultural security corridor. The iáea stemmed from a conversation between former Maryland Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin and former Maryland Agriculture Secretary Louis Riley at a 1995 fund-raiser that launched the campaign to protect the corridor.

Today, Eastern Shore counties have designated roughly 25,000 acres of Rural Legacy lands in the corridor, which will be core areas for protection. In addition, the conservancy has preserved about 26,000 acres — much of it in the agricultural security corridor — and other groups are helping as well. “In five years,” predicted Vigland, “you are going to see huge blocks of protected land in the heart of Delmarva.”

Still, only a fraction of the land will have been protected. “The question we faced all along is can we focus on an area that large and really preserve it,” Etgen said. “But I think the answer is, we don’t have to preserve all of it.”

Efforts to preserve agricultural land, he said, send a message that the region is serious about protecting agriculture. The result, he said, is that many farms that go up for sale are being sold to people interested in staying in farming, rather than to developers.

“We’re seeing more and more people who want to stay in farming buying farms next to those that are being preserved,” Brinsfield said.

That type of long-term commitment is what helped to attract the Amish to Earleville.

Ironically, when representatives for the Amish began calling about the land, Etgen had concerns. Were the independent-minded Amish willing to deal with Maryland’s strict nutrient management laws?

Nonetheless, a group of Amish traveled to Earleville by bus for an evening meeting in the Fire Hall. They also met with conservation officials to learn about Maryland’s regulatory environment. And now, the sales are moving ahead.

“We thought they might not know that Maryland was going to have a fairly tough regulatory control over their operations down here. It didn’t seem to be a concern to them at all, and they’ve been terrific to work with,” Etgen said. “I think it is going to be fine.”