Northern counties blending old, new
Agriculture, tech growing together
FREDERICK, MD. | Before he got involved in the beer business, Frederick County farmer Greg Clabaugh grossed about $600 an acre for growing traditional crops like corn and soybeans.
Now, on the land where he grows barley and rye, he grosses $6,000 an acre.
Included in that number is payment for malting, a process where grains are partially germinated then heat-dried, allowing them to be more easily consumed by yeast in the brewing or distilling process.
“You gotta put the time in,” said Mr. Clabaugh, about learning to malt. “We started at the bottom and worked our way up. Now I have requests from all over.”
Mr. Clabaugh’s partner in his malting operation is Tom Flores, brewmaster for Monocacy Brewing and Brewer’s Alley, both located in the city of Frederick. Mr. Clabaugh and Flores are the very portrait of what counties like Frederick are trying to do economically — find synergies between traditional agricultural interests and newer down-county businesses, including tech, tourism and a booming food and booze scene in the city of Frederick.
Unlike Western Maryland and Eastern Shore counties, which are starved for growth, Harford, Carroll and Frederick are trying to ensure their farming heritage doesn’t become a casualty of their recent economic success and decades-long population growth. A legacy industry in particular jeopardy is dairy farming, which is suffering acutely from a steep drop in the market price for raw milk.
Can Maryland’s northern counties thread the needle between the older and newer parts of their economies? It’s not clear. But if they’re successful, they could show other rural areas how to lean less on farming without forsaking it altogether.
From 1960 to 2010, the counties of Frederick, Carroll and Harford each experienced more than 200 percent population growth, most of it down-county, in commuting distance to either Washington, Baltimore or both. The demographic explosion was the result of a range of factors, from the construction of Interstate 270 to Frederick in the 1970s to the steady bed-rooming of Carroll and Harford by commuters looking for cheaper real estate and a better quality of life.
“We’re on the precipice of being a fullfledged suburban county,” said County Executive Barry Glassman, Harford Republican. “We’re down to four or five dairy farms.”
The effects of the demographic shift over the past few decades hit traditional farming businesses hard, both in land swallowed for real estate development and increases in agricultural production costs.
Between 1997 and 2012, Harford lost 30 percent of its farmland. In Frederick, the decrease was 15 percent in the same span.