For a Few, There's Still a Rural Life Beyond the Bulldozers

THE bulldozers of suburban dream builders have not yet reached the pastoral fringes of Prince George's County. But they're headed this way. Just 22 miles from the White House, weathered tobacco barns, a one-room schoolhouse, and ruins of a country store perch peacefully here overlooking the Patuxent River.

Yuppies who stumble onto the town of Nottingham enviously calculate what it would take - in cash and commuting time - to stake a claim on its verdure.

On the other hand, Gordon Downing, whose family has lived here since before the Civil War, wonders how long his stake in the land and a rural lifestyle will last.

Change in Nottingham has been assured by a conspiracy of forces: real-estate development fueled by the booming economy of the D.C. region, environmental concerns about the rich but endangered Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and a changing world market for the tobacco grown here.

``Last year was my first year with no tobacco [crop] since I've been farming,'' says Mr. Downing, who took over the land in the 1950s and built it into one of Maryland's largest tobacco farms. ``The nonsmoking [movement] means the tobacco companies don't need tobacco as bad,'' he says. And though the world demand for tobacco is still high, he says, the high costs of domestically grown tobacco prices it out of the world market.

But it is the booming growth of the county as an affordable commuter haven that has really changed things. In the late 1980s, ornamental horticulture products used to landscape new developments replaced tobacco as the No. 1 agricultural product, according to the University of Maryland agricultural science cooperative extension. Farmland has disappeared: 2,130 farms took up 60 percent of county land area in 1950; by 1987 only 683 farms occupied a mere 20 percent of the land.

Downing explains: ``Land has gotten too high [priced] to farm. A farmer trying to scratch a dollar from the land has some real-estate man come out and offer $10,000 an acre for 50 acres. He can put it in the bank and live on interest and not even strike a lick.'' Downing sold off all but 20 acres of his 300-acre farm in 1985. It was what he calls a ``panic'' situation in which he was caught in the effects of the development boom. He now leases about 100 acres to grow soybeans and corn.

This same booming growth has forced the state to move to protect areas considered critical to the Chesapeake Bay. Downing's land along the river was declared by the state to be critical wetlands, and the resulting building restrictions reduced its market value. Downing sold his land to the state.

He supports conservation efforts, he says, ``but not at the expense of someone depending on the land for retirement.''

``I'm not talking about myself but the people up and down the shore who don't have a darn thing except the land. It's great to protect the bay, but why not buy the land at a high price?''

Downing saw the changes coming and says he did ``everything I could to keep the kids off the farm.'' Indeed, two of his four children are making a living now in the development boom, working in construction-related businesses.

The burly farmer, who calls himself ``country folk,'' muses about the ``strange behavior'' of suburbanite neighbors who have moved within minutes of Nottingham.

``Every once in a while people get two acres and build a house, and it's all right for them. But they don't want anyone else doing it [nearby]. They want wide open spaces.... What they outta do is buy 100 acres and put their house right in the middle if it.''

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