Frederick County’s Agricultural Preservation Efforts Keep Growing
By Kate McDermott and Photography by Turner Photography Studio
Nearly 750 years before colonial settlers were lured to mid-Maryland by the offer of free property in the Monocacy River valley, Frederick County had been home to various Indigenous peoples who farmed the area’s rich and fertile land.
They knew then what farmers know now: with a favorable climate, latitude and quality soils, Frederick County is a great place to put down roots.
Frederick County has 1,373 farms, covering a total of 188,567 acres, or approximately 44 percent of the county’s total land, according to University of Maryland Extension. The county leads the state in numerous agricultural categories, including total number of farms; highest number of organic, turkey and agritourism farms; and most hay acres. The county produces more than a quarter of all the wine grapes in the state and is home to Maryland’s first cidery and meadery, as well as its first farm brewery.
To maintain its status as an agricultural leader in Maryland for generations to come, Frederick County offers an array of land preservation programs that aim to protect local farmland before it is lost forever to development.
David and Belinda Burrier own 109 acres of farmland near Libertytown, land that has been in an agricultural preservation program for 20 years. Six generations of the Burrier family have called Frederick County home, and the Burriers want to make sure their land never becomes acres of houses someday.
“This farm is the farm I grew up on,” David says. When it came time for David’s father to park his tractor for the last time, he wanted to see the farm stay in the family. Thanks to Frederick County’s agricultural land preservation programs, Belinda and David got the help they needed to buy the farm.
By entering into an easement agreement with the county, the Burriers got access to the capital they needed to purchase the property from David’s father. In exchange, they agreed to protect the land from future uses that are not compatible with agriculture. “This program is a way for young farmers to get started,” David says. “But it is also a tool and mechanism to keep land in the family.”
That’s exactly why Richard Pry was one of the very first farmers in Frederick County to participate in the program. The Pry family’s Needwood Farms sit on 400 acres off of Md. 17 near Burkittsville. Richard was born and raised on the farm and he and his bride of 67 years, Patricia, raised their four children there.
“It’s in my blood,” Richard says. Needlewood was recently honored by the Maryland’s Century Farm Program, which recognizes farms that have been in the same family for at least 100 consecutive years. And thanks to the farm’s agricultural preservation easements, the agricultural legacy can continue for generations to come.
“When I asked our children what they wanted to see happen to the farm, they answered in one voice, ‘We don’t want to see a shopping center or houses on this land.’ Because once you put asphalt and concrete down, you don’t grow there anymore,” Richard says.
Thanks to the Prys’ agricultural preservation easements, they won’t have to worry about that. Nor will they have to see development occur on many of their neighbors’ farms either. Since the Pry farm entered the program, other neighboring properties have also signed easement agreements. There are now 9,000 contiguous acres along Md. 17 that are included in some type of agricultural preservation program.
Different Programs, Same Goals
The Frederick County Land Preservation Program provides farmers with several options to choose from in protecting their farmland. Some are sponsored by the county, some by the state and some by the federal government. Each has slightly different criteria, but the goal is the same: preserve the land for continued agricultural use.
Maryland’s Rural Legacy program was launched in 1997 to protect large contiguous areas of land and support natural resource-based industries. Frederick has two designated Rural Legacy areas: the Mid-Maryland area in the Burkittsville area and the Carrollton Manor area around Adamstown.
Two of the most widely used sources of preservation funding are the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation Program and the county’s Installment Purchase Program. Under the state program, farmers receive a lump sum to terminate their development rights. Since 1980, more than 24,000 acres of prime farmland have been permanently protected in Frederick County under this program. The county program purchases easements that provide a farmer with a tax-free, interest-only income stream over a period of 10 to 20 years, with a balloon lump-sum principal payment at the end of the term.
Frederick County’s Critical Farms Program is a short-term, no-interest loan that enables full-time farmers to access the up-front money they may need to purchase farmland in the county. The funds are considered an option to acquire a preservation easement on the property.
Generally speaking, to qualify for these programs, property owners must have a minimum of 50 acres (unless adjoining an already protected property), meet certain soil quality criteria and have remaining development rights on the land.
Farms that are located in the county’s five priority preservation areas of Burkittsville, Walkersville, Middletown Valley, Eastern County (Woodsboro/Keymar/Linganore) and South County (Buckeystown/Adamstown) typically rank higher in the application process. That is because the soils in these areas are considered the most arable.
“A Game Changer”
Anne Bradley has been in the Frederick County Land Preservation office for 17 years and currently serves as the land preservation program administrator. During her tenure, she has seen the number of agricultural preservation agreements in the county grow steadily, yet every year she has had to turn applicants away. Bradley has farmers who have applied 10 years in a row without being accepted—not because they weren’t eligible, but simply because her funding sources had been exhausted.
“Ever since the program was initiated, the limiting factor has been financing,” David Burrier says. “I myself know several farmers who are waiting in the wings to participate.”
But thanks to a new source of funding, they may not have to wait much longer. Effective Oct. 1, 2020, the Frederick County Council raised the recordation tax, with funds from the increase designated for agricultural preservation.
“This is really a game changer for us,” Bradley says, noting that Frederick County’s Livable Frederick comprehensive plan update set a goal of having a minimum of 100,000 acres in agricultural preservation by 2040. “We currently have more than 400 agreements in place that cover nearly 71,500 acres of agricultural land in the county. Thanks to the recordation tax increase, I believe we will make that goal before 2040.”
The process begins with Bradley and her team of two other planners reviewing each application to ensure it meets the particular program’s criteria. They work with appraisers who conduct an evaluation of the farm’s development value at current rates, so that the owners can know the equity they have in the land. If approved for participation and an agreement is signed, the farmer is compensated and commits to continue to keep the farm in agricultural use for perpetuity.
Applying to participate in any of the preservation programs is relatively easy and free, Burrier says. “It was not a hard process at all. We work with bankers and lawyers all the time and the application process [for agricultural preservation easements] was no different.”
A five-member Agricultural Preservation Advisory Board reviews all the applications and staff recommendations. When an easement is approved, it starts an ongoing relationship between Bradley’s office and the farmer. “We are with them forever,” she says, noting that she and her team visit more than 80 easement holders a year, both to stay in touch and to fulfill their stewardship role of ensuring there are no uses occurring on the land that violate signed agricultural preservation agreements.
Pro-Agriculture, Not Anti-Development
Mention the word “agriculture” and many envision acres of crops and barns full of livestock. But in the 21st century, agricultural uses can be everything from family-friendly fall festivals to wine tasting rooms. So, Bradley works closely with Katie Stevens, associate director of agriculture business development in the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, to help farmers “think outside the barn” in search of ways to make a profit off their land.
Earlier this year, the county set aside $500,000 for its third round of Agricultural Innovation Grants (funded by the American Rescue Plan Act) to encourage farmers and agricultural producers to expand or diversify their business operations. Past grants have been used for things such as irrigation systems, a walk-in freezer for on-site beef sales and a dessert trailer.
Whether hosting agritourism events like fall pumpkin picking and hayrides or opening a tasting room to showcase wines or beers made with products grown on the farm, supporting agriculture in the county is economic development at its core.
“Our job is to help our farmers be profitable and sustainable,” Stevens says. Her department’s Homegrown Frederick magazine and website, which spotlight local farms, farmers’ markets and craft beverage creators, is designed to do just that by promoting farm-to-table dining and where to find fresh, locally grown food.
“Agriculture is a vital part of an economy,” Stevens says, noting that agricultural businesses employed 2,200 people in Frederick County and had a total economic impact of nearly $270 million in 2018, the most recent data available. Farm-related tax revenue (on employee compensation, household expenditures and taxes on production and imports) exceeded $10 million.
By highlighting the economic impact, breadth and diversity of modern agriculture, advocates want to help the public better understand the critical role agriculture plays in our local, national and global economies. “People have to realize that we are losing farmland at an alarming rate, in Maryland and across the United States,” Belinda Burrier says. So, if current and future generations want ample and accessible food supplies, “It is important to protect each and every acre.”
But farmers will be the first to tell you that not everyone is up to the task. “Farming is very challenging work,” David Burrier says. “The financial reward is not what brings you to this business. Your heart needs to be in it.”
Just ask Richard Pry. “Even on the worst days, I’m at peace out there,” he says, referring to his family’s fields. “Just give me a tractor and a dog—preferably a collie—to follow.”
It is that kind of love for what they do that fills Bradley with a sense of job satisfaction few will ever know. “I can’t imagine there being a more rewarding job,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “These farms are treasures and I see the good preservation does.”