When Back-40 Becomes Backyard

In Michigan, officials seek ways to preserve prime farmland from urban sprawl

WEARY of police sirens, leash laws, and other trappings of city life, urbanites here in Michigan and across the country are building homes in corn fields and grassy meadows.

While this exodus may be inevitable in a country rooted in the pioneer spirit, some agricultural experts warn that rural development is squandering a priceless resource: farmland.

According to the US Department of Agriculture's National Resource Inventory, developed land increased 14 million acres from 1982 to 1992, of which 4 million were considered to be prime soil.

``This is not a lot of land on the national scale, but you have to look at where it is,'' says Deborah Bowers, editor of a newsletter called the Farmland Preservation Report. ``Whole regions are being eaten up, whole counties.''

One such area is Webster Township, 50 miles southwest of Detroit in Washtenaw County, Mich.

Here, bulldozers are as common as tractors. Property taxes have exploded in the last 10 years, residents say, and developers are offering farmers up to $10,000 an acre for their land: almost 10 times what it could fetch for farming.

``There ain't no money in farming anymore,'' says Ted Laskey, who now sells firewood near a busy road here. ``It makes more sense to grow houses now than it does crops.''

Although a 1974 Michigan law offers a property-tax break for farmers who agree not to sell their land for development, participation in the program has declined since 1992.

Because agriculture is a $37 billion business in Michigan - second only to the automobile industry - Gov. John Engler has commissioned a task force to study ways to preserve farmland.

David Skjaerlund, task-force coordinator, says that in Southeastern Michigan alone, 14 to 30 percent of farm acreage has been lost in the last 10 years. In the same period, a 6 percent increase in population has led to a 40 percent increase in development. Mr. Skjaerlund says this fantastically high rate of conversion reflects the fact that new developments are far larger than their predecessors, with individual homesites covering five to 10 acres, rather than one or two.

The urban exodus has made farming more difficult here. Once quiet country roads now teem with traffic, making it difficult to transport sluggish tractors and combines. Power shortages are frequent, and some residential neighbors don't like the smell of livestock, or object to farmers spraying their fields with pesticides.

In addition, as more farmers leave their districts, support systems go with them, Skjaerlund says, leaving farmers to drive 30 to 40 miles to sell their grains or buy supplies.

This summer, in a highly publicized case of citizen initiative, residents of Traverse City, Mich., approved a $2.5-million bond referendum to protect cherry orchards on the nearby Mission Peninsula.

The money will be deposited into a fund that will pay farmers the difference between what their land is worth for farming and what a developer might offer, in exchange for a pledge to keep it in agriculture.

According to Ms. Bowers, there are state-approved bond issue programs in nine states nationwide to protect farmland.

While they have succeeded in some coastal states where agriculture is scarce and development pressure is great, Bowers says on the whole, farmland preservation efforts are ``losing, big time. These programs are a last-ditch effort to save farmland on the urban fringe.''

Nevertheless, farmland preservationists counter that farm flight can devastate local economies. When farms disappear, Bowers says, they remove a source of local revenue, turning rural areas into bedroom communities dependent on wages earned in urban centers.

In turn, she contends, urban areas are forced to rely on food trucked in from faraway places: A scenario that produced empty grocery store shelves in some cities during the 1973 oil embargo.

According to Skjaerlund, increasing population and shrinking cropland are a volatile mix. Calls for statewide or federal pesticide bans increase every year, he says, and if limits are enacted, crop yields could decrease by as much as 10 percent per acre. Then, he says, farmers and consumers will feel the pinch of lost land.

``The problem with development is that it's pretty much permanent,'' Skjaerlund says. ``Right now there's a surplus of food in the world, so it's not a crisis. But in 40 years, who knows what the situation will be?''

But some developers and farmers don't see the loss of cropland as such a crisis.

John Alexander, a farmer here whose land has been in his family since 1826, says the loss of farmland is unfortunate, but inevitable as entrepreneurs offer fat sums for marginal cropland. Few farmers, he notes, would ever voluntarily relinquish the development value of their land, even if they would rather keep it in agriculture.

``The mathematics are pretty simple,'' Mr. Alexander says. ``It's not greed, it's just being smart.''

YET Tom Bloomer, a hog farmer here in Webster Township, attacks the logic of billeting urbanites in the countryside while cities are struggling to survive.

``We're organizing our society in a very stupid way,'' he says. ``People move to the country and expect to commute every day, and the state government is building more roads to make it easier for people to move out. Why should they encourage people to burn gas?''

Mr. Bloomer, a farmer for all of his working life, says city dwellers should think twice about the way they use resources. ``I understand why people want to move out of the city, but it's a paradox. If eveybody moves to the country, it isn't beautiful anymore.''

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