Silos vs. subdivisions
As more and more farmland is plowed under for housing developments, people wonder how to make room for both the cows and the kids.
For years, America's urban areas have been letting out their overalls, spreading into the surrounding countryside. As a result, developers and farmers are caught in a tug of war, both sides using "this land is my land" as a theme song.Skip to next paragraph
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Developers say the need for housing is growing. Agriculturists contend that it's foolhardy to build subdivisions on some of the most fertile land in the world. So what can be done to save the land and meet the needs of cities? Can the two sides work together?
So far, there have been three main approaches: Preservation of farmland through agricultural zoning, easements, lower tax rates, and trusts of various kinds; promotion of smaller-scale, entrepreneurial farming in and near cities; and adoption of planning strategies that allow for more efficient sharing between agricultural and residential uses.
But how well are these strategies working?
According to a study by the American Farmland Trust, 1 million acres of irreplaceable agricultural lands are lost to sprawl each year, with Texas losing the most high-quality land, followed by Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Illinois.
The house-building industry, on the other hand, doubts that a farmland crisis exists. It points to the fact that American farms are producing more food than ever and that shelter is a growing national concern.
With the US population expected to grow 23 percent by 2020, some land currently being farmed will likely be needed for housing - but how much?
"A shortage of affordable housing is a critical national problem," says Gary Garczynski, president of the National Association of Home Builders. "In contrast, this nation has no food shortage. In fact, we export roughly 20 percent of our agricultural output."
Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust, counters that while crop yields have dramatically increased since World War II, the rate of growth has leveled off in the past two decades. And while more US land is devoted to farming than any other purpose, with an estimated 945 million acres in production, much of the prime farmland is located near cities. That means it's a candidate for development.
"Our ancestors were bright people," Mr. Grossi says. "They settled where the most fertile land was, so our cities are now growing on the best farmland in the country. If we continue to develop at our current rate, there won't be agriculture in some of these areas 15 or 20 years from now."
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over farming production. Biotechnology, environmental regulations, and Washington-based policies continue to change the livelihood, making it less attractive to farmers' children, who go off to college and often don't return. And when a drought occurs, farming families begin to wonder if the huge investments of time, labor, and money are worth it.
"It's increasingly difficult to convince the next generation to keep the farm in the family," says Mike Matson, a spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Thus, when developers offer retirement-age farmers more money than they can imagine, many take it, as agonizing as that decision may be.
In Yolo County, Calif., two cities have taken a different approach. Davis and Woodland have signed an agreement that prevents a green buffer of more than 11,000 acres between them from being annexed by either community.
In some cases, governments and private conservation organizations simply buy up the property development rights from farmers so there won't be development. Twenty-four states have such programs on the books, and others will soon join them.