New research in Maryland is aimed at answering a key question: When it comes to preserving farmland — and an agricultural economy — when is enough, enough?

The study is aimed at determining whether there is a “critical mass” of farmland that must be maintained to keep agriculture at the county, regional and state level.

“We can’t continue to erode the land base and expect to have an agricultural industry in the state,” said Russell Brinsfield, executive director of the Maryland Center for Agro-Ecology, a nonprofit organization formed two years ago by government, environmental and agricultural leaders in the state, which is funding the study.

Although the study is aimed at Mary land, it will have relevance to Virginia and Pennsylvania as well.

The critical mass concept suggests that a region needs enough farmland to support its agricultural infrastructure. As farm acreage declines, there are fewer purchasers of fertilizer, seed, equipment and other support services.

“If you’ve gone below the critical mass, it means you’ve pretty much lost your support sector, you are farming next to nonfarmers, you’re having problems getting your equipment across the road, you have trespassing and vandalism, people complain about the noise, the dust and the times that you farm,” said Lori Lynch, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “All of those things contribute either to raising your cost, or decreasing the price that you receive back. That is the sort of thing we are trying to get at.”

If an area falls below that critical mass, some farms may linger for a while, but the agricultural industry may have reached a point of no return. Any farms that remain will most likely disappear — or dramatically change their operations.

For instance, Lynch said, some farmers may be able to stay in an area by switching from crops such as corn, to high-value produce such as vegetables, which can be grown on smaller amounts of land.

As part of the research, Lynch plans to look at 50 years of data from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to determine what has happened to agriculture at the county and regional level over time.

The study will also examine farmer behavior, and the factors that cause someone to make investments in one area, but not another. Some studies, for example, have suggested that when development occurs next to otherwise profitable farms, it makes farming more difficult and can ultimately lead to the sale of more farms — something called the “impermanence syndrome.”

Basically, as nonfarm neighbors complain about the noise and smell from farms — and sometimes seek local ordinances to control the problems — it makes farmers begin to question the future of their operations.

“They stop making investments in productivity, and because they are not investing, their profitability goes down relative to other farming areas,” Lynch said. “You start having a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the end, the economically correct decision is to sell the land.”

The need for the critical mass study lies in the fact that large chunks of farmland don’t usually disappear overnight. Rather, farms disappear one by one over a period of time.

“The conversion of agricultural land is a complex process, often taking place over a period of 20 to 30 years,” said a report by the American Farmland Trust. “As a consequence, the cumulative impact of agricultural land loss is rarely appreciated until much has already been lost. What seems insignificant or even acceptable a little at a time becomes a pattern or a whole that most Americans reject.”

In other words, if farmland is to be protected, action is often needed before people may perceive there is a problem.

The research will be used to make recommendations about how farmland should be preserved in the future. For example, it could show that farmland protection programs — instead of scattering funds throughout the state — should seek to preserve regions where agriculture is most sustainable in the long term.

“We have to start thinking about the relationship between the land base and the long-term viability of the industry,” Brinsfield said.

That type of planning runs counter to what has taken place in the past. His torically, Brinsfield said, farms and forests have been viewed as lands “held in surplus until we decide what we want do with it for a ‘higher and better’ use.”

But that undervalues the important economic and environmental roles those lands play, he said. Farms, for example, not only provide food, but are open spaces where rain infiltrates to recharge groundwater supplies, wildlife habitat, places to absorb flood water and recreational areas for hunting and fishing.

“Working landscapes,” Brinsfield said, “can be managed with the environment.”

Prime Farmland Lost to Development

The Bay states lost more than a million acres of farmland from 1982–97, according to federal figures.

The figures, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Inventory, show that Virginia lost farmland at a rate of 32,000 acres annually during that 15-year period, while Pennsylvania lost about 28,000 acres a year, and Maryland 12,000.

The figures, which cover the entire states and not just the portion within the Chesapeake watershed, show that in 1997, Virginia had about 2.9 million acres of farmland remaining, while Pennsylvania had 5.5 million acres and Maryland 1.6 million.

But that doesn’t tell all of the story, according to a recent report, “Farming on the Edge,” from the American Farmland Trust. The Northern Piedmont region, which includes parts of all three states, was among the areas of high-quality “prime” farmland deemed by the conservation group to be most under threat from development.

Prime farmland areas are disproportionately productive, but are often located near cities — largely because agriculture was the basis for most permanent inland settlements in the United States. Those settlements tended to seek the most fertile soil in areas near rivers that provided transportation.

As a result, half the value of the nation’s total farm production actually comes from counties in and immediately surrounding urban areas that have grown from those settlements. But that also means that areas with prime agricultural soils are often under the greatest threat from development and are being lost at an even faster rate than farmland as a whole, according to the report.

As prime lands are developed, it forces farmers onto less productive land, or land that is more susceptible to erosion, the report said.

“The long-term implications are troubling,” the study said. If trends continue, the United States population will increase by 50 percent to more than 390 million people, but farmers will have to have to feed them with 13 percent fewer acres of high-quality farmland. “In the worst case scenario,” the report said, “within the next 60 years, the United States could become a net food importer instead of a net food exporter.”