HARVARD, ILL. — As Illinois Highway 120 winds through rural McHenry County, signs of the encroaching city are everywhere. Open fields give way to shopping malls. Farm stands are crowded by gas stations. The morning traffic is slowed not by tractors but by cement mixers rumbling toward housing subdivisions with names like Misty Hill Farms and Bright Meadows.
But the greatest cost of urban sprawl in this county 50 miles northwest of Chicago is hidden: Beneath the shiny new stores, homes, and pavement lies some of the world's richest farmland.
McHenry County is not alone. Across the United States, more than 25 million acres of prime agricultural land are threatened by rapid urban development, according to a report released yesterday by the American Farmland Trust (AFT). Over the decade ending in 1992, 4.3 million acres of high-quality land were overrun. Much of the loss occurred in key farming states such as Illinois, Texas, California, and Florida, says the Washington-based conservation group.
Conservation-minded officials, scientists, and academics warn that if the destruction of highly productive farmland continues along with current rates of population growth, the US could become a net food importer by the mid-21st century.
"We are going to wake up one day and say 'Where did all this beautiful land go?'" says Paul Johnson, chief of the natural resource conservation service of the US Department of Agriculture. "It's pretty obvious that the direction we are going is not sustainable over the long haul."
Others experts disagree. Many economists say the percentage of prime US farmland lost is small (1.3 percent of the total from 1982 to 1992) and is offset by technological advances that boost agricultural productivity. Farmland is most efficiently allocated by the market and should not be protected, they say.
But conservationists stress that losing even small portions of land can have a major impact, especially on the supply of produce to urban markets. The 20 most-threatened prime farming areas identified by the AFT supply half of the fruit, two-fifths of the vegetables, and nearly a third of the dairy goods produced in the US.
Moreover, they question whether new technologies can continue to raise productivity to compensate for the disappearance of prime tillage. "It is a bad strategy to take a limited, unique land base and consume it because we think ... in the future we will invent our way out of the problem," says Harvey Jacobs, an urban planning expert at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The debate over urban sprawl is raging in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, where rapid development is colliding with some of America's best farmland. It has emerged as a key issue in several local elections. Few easy solutions are in sight.
"Here it is," says AFT researcher Gerald Paulson as he drives over a ridge in Harvard, Ill. "It looks like a space ship just landed north of town." Down the road, a hulking silver Motorola plant rises above fields, dwarfing an old farmstand beside it.
The new Motorola plant, built on 500 acres of annexed farmland, is symbolic of the dramatic urbanization of McHenry County. The fastest growing farming county in the area, McHenry's population increased 35 percent from 1980 to 1992.
McHenry is typical of many farming communities pressured as developers, city dwellers, and suburbanites migrate deeper into rural areas in search of lower land prices and a higher quality of life. In a measure of the sprawl, from 1970 to 1990 the population of the Chicago metro area grew by 4 percent, while its lands expanded by more than 50 percent.
Yet the reaction in McHenry is mixed. In towns and cities such as Harvard, which dominate decisionmaking on zoning and land use, officials often welcome the influx of people, jobs, and businesses as a means to increase tax revenues. Harvard overrode objections from some citizens and its own planning department to annex 1,500 acres of land for the Motorola plant and other developments - expanding the city's area 60 percent. Some local farmers are eager to sell their $1,000- to $3,000-per acre land to developers who pay 10 times as much, especially if they are near retirement and have no children interested in farming.
Others, such as grain-farmer John Pihl, dread the newcomers' traffic, complaints, and potential lawsuits. Mr. Pihl's 500-acre farm lies in Harvard's Bigfoot Prairie, a glacial plain with soil "like gold." But today his farm abuts a 700-acre site planned for low-cost housing for Motorola workers.
Concerned over the little say farmers had in the Motorola decision, Pihl a year ago launched the biweekly Harvard's Choice newspaper to "give people a rallying point," he says. Today, slow, controlled growth is a key issue in April 1 local elections.
The rate of growth is also a central issue in the mayor's race in nearby Woodstock. There, Mayor Bill Anderson is courting the Phoenix-based Del Webb Corp., which is considering purchasing 1,400 acres of farmland to build its first cold-climate Sun City retirement community.
Sun City is opposed by candidate Alan Cornue, a farm owner. Mr. Cornue hopes to slow growth and block the project by passing a regulation to limit residential building permits in Woodstock, where the population has jumped 20 percent since 1990. Even if he wins, Cornue foresees an uphill battle to fend off rapid growth long term. "Do people really care? Will they care long and hard enough? I don't know," he says.
Nevertheless, some US farming communities are succeeding by combining traditional zoning with innovative strategies such as buying development rights and creating "urban growth boundaries" to halt the destruction of prime tillage.
In Lancaster County, Pa., another agricultural area rated as endangered by AFT, a program to pay farmers some $2,000 an acre to forgo the right to develop their land has helped conserve 24,000 acres in both large blocks of farmland and as rural buffer zones around cities.
Marin County, Ca., which in 1980 set up the first private trust devoted to agricultural land, has preserved some 25,000 acres of and with a similar program. The success of these efforts prompted Washington lawmakers to set aside $15 million in the 1996 Farm Bill for federal grants to purchase development rights. So far, 37 localities in 17 states have received the grants. While popular on the coasts, the idea has only recently caught on in the Midwest, with experiments in Wisconsin and Michigan. Such programs are expensive, however, says AFT president Ralph Grossi. They require strong community backing and are best started early. "It is terribly difficult for communities to start the process once they have gotten too far down the road of development," he says.