History of the Ag Reserve
Montgomery’s Rural Past
Until World War II, farming was the primary industry in Montgomery County, and most of the region was productive farmland. From the northeastern shores of the Potomac to the southern banks of the Patuxent, a rural piedmont landscape stretched for miles, dotted with red barns, silos, dairy cows and cornfields. Farmers reaped the benefits of a generous climate, rich soils, and plentiful rainfall, transporting their produce near and far to lucrative markets.
Farming in the Early Days
The region’s agricultural history stretches back through the centuries to American Indian settlements along area rivers and streams, where corn, beans, and squash were cultivated to augment the plentiful local fish and game. In the earliest years of European settlement, wealthy and influential men were given large land grants which they eventually broke up and sold and/or leased to farmers of more modest means. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this resource-rich area attracted farmers of Scottish, German, Irish and Welsh ancestry and lured English tobacco-growers, with their dependence on slave labor, North from the Tidewater region. Quakers settled and farmed in the Sandy Spring/Brookeville area. During the Civil War, famished Union and Confederate soldiers helped themselves to the bounty of Montgomery County farms. The region’s farms also fed escaped slaves on their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Many former slaves settled here and their descendants formed enduring communities where they have continued to grow crops throughout the generations.
As tobacco-growing began to deplete the soil, farmers switched to growing grains and livestock. With the inauguration of Rail transportation in the latter part of the 19th century, a thriving dairy industry grew up along the lines. According to the authors of Circling Historic Landscapes: “Fresh milk, sped to Washington on the morning ‘milk train,’ led to the growth of the local dairy industry.”
Technological advancement characterized the region’s farms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including those near Sugarloaf Mountain: “While the farmer’s personal habits and manners had changed little from those of his immediate ancestors, reapers, threshers and self-propelled steam engines, along with better systems of fertilization and crop rotation allowed him to realize harvests unimaginable to his father. And the new railroad, the Metropolitan Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which came through in 1873, gave him a quick, efficient way to get them to market.”
The Creation of the Agricultural Reserve
Development pressures grew in the second half of the twentieth century and Montgomery County’s farms started to disappear at an alarming rate. Community planners began to brainstorm about ways they could preserve some of the county’s historic farmland before it was swallowed up by residential and commercial development. In the 1960s, they pioneered the concept of “Wedges and Corridors,” wherein development was concentrated along transportation corridors in order to retain green “wedges” in its midst. A Rural Zone was established during the 1970s, limiting building to one house per five acres in areas of contiguous farmland, but it didn’t stanch the flow of farmland loss. In 1980, further deliberations culminated in a Master Plan that established an “Agricultural Reserve” of more than 90,000 acres in the northern and western part of the county. From hereon, for a substantial portion of the Reserve (the so-called RDT—rural density transfer—zone), only one house could be built per 25 acres.
The success of this model land-use program rested on its pioneering program of transferable development rights (TDRs). In order to compensate the farmers and land-owners who would no longer be able to develop their properties, the County granted them one “TDR” per five acres. Each TDR could be sold to more densely developed “receiving areas” in other parts of the County. In addition to the 25-acre zoning and its concomitant TDR program, many farmers have elected to place their land under more restrictive protective measures by participating in conservation easement programs with the Montgomery County Agricultural Easement Program, the Maryland Environmental Trust, the Potomac Conservancy, the Sugarloaf Conservancy and other state and local preservation programs.
The “Ag Reserve” Today
For 35 years, Montgomery’s farmland conservation measures have enjoyed remarkable success and widespread support. The Agricultural Reserve has been called “the country’s most successful farmland preservation program.”Thanks to the vision of the 1980 Montgomery County Planning Board, the County Council and other leaders in the planning community, northwestern Montgomery County has continued to be a rural green landscape where farms and farmers thrive.
According to the Agricultural Services Division of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development: “The majority of Montgomery County farms are family-run operations, many reaching back several generations.” Fifty percent of the county’s farmers work full time in farming and 10,000 people are employed in farming enterprises.
In recent years, the traditional beef and dairy farms, corn, soybean and wheat fields have been joined by a growing number of equestrian enterprises, diversified family farms, horticultural businesses and pastures with grazing sheep, llamas and alpacas. Shepherds spin and hand-dye their wool, and residents can purchase native fibers at open studio tours on local farms. Vineyards are springing up as part of Maryland’s growing wine industry and brilliant patches of golden sunflowers represent another new farming endeavor. Read more about the Ag Reserve.
Visiting the Ag Reserve
Residents of the Washington region can visit the Ag Reserve from late spring through early fall for fresh berries, peaches, apples, corn, tomatoes and other vegetables or purchase local produce at thriving farmers markets in suburban Maryland and DC. In the fall, families head out to the pumpkin patch, and during Christmastime, they cut fresh trees from Ag Reserve tree farms and nurseries. Children from Rockville and Gaithersburg come to the Agricultural Reserve for horseback riding lessons and cyclists day-dream all week about their weekend rides on rustic roads. Sugarloaf Mountain, just over the Frederick County line, draws nearly a quarter million visitors each year. From the summit of Sugarloaf, hikers look out over Montgomery County’s pastoral patchwork of farms and villages, a countryside view largely unchanged since the 19th century.
A Green Future
If the Agricultural Reserve is to continue to provide a growing metropolitan area with all of the benefits that a scenic rural area has to offer, it’s going to take the will and vigilance of Montgomery County citizens. Enjoy this precious, rural legacy in every way possible. Support our local farmers. And learn what you can do to ensure a green future for Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve.