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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.

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Local and state initiatives are responsible for protecting about 1 million acres, and now the federal government has significantly raised its support, providing $50 million for preservation in the latest farm bill.

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Agricultural zoning for farmland isn't considered a true solution because zoning can be changed. Conservation easements provide more permanent protection.

With these easements (paid for by a variety of government and private sources), the farmer gets the difference between the "fair market value" and the "agricultural value" of his land.In exchange for this, a permanent deed prevents any use that limits agricultural viability. The farmer continues to own the land and can make his livelihood from it. He can pass the land on or sell it, but the land must remain in cultivation or as open space.

Still, this doesn't address the needs of people who'd like to live within realistic commuting distance of urban areas.

A patchwork of approaches

Achieving a mix between development and land preservation may be the real challenge.

One strategy is transferable development rights, which create greater building density in some areas in exchange for less in others. This tool has allowed Montgomery County, Md., to preserve its rural flavor by concentrating development along designated corridors.

This sort of division, says Bob Wagner of the American Farmland Trust, has a better chance of being implemented in the Farm Belt, where there's still time to debate the future of development.

In the East, though, the rural landscape is often a mishmash. Because of development pressures, agriculturally zoned areas may feel more residential than rural. But scattered, smaller farms at the urban edge hold potential for preserving land, creating a city-to-country transition zone.

They can also be profitable. Farmers around the country who learn what food shoppers in their areas want - and provide it - are responsible for the renaissance in farmers' markets and farm stands and the popularity of pick-your-own farms and orchards.

"There are a lot of cottage-industry opportunities," says Patty Cantrell, an economist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. In the past, farm policies at every level have promoted large-scale production and yields.

But by intensively growing high-value crops such as tomatoes, strawberries, and artichokes, a farmer can make a decent income on much less land than required for corn or soybeans. "Although farmers may not get that high a price, it's local, they don't have a lot of transaction costs, so it can still be good for their bottom line," Ms. Cantrell says.

A new idea is pairing farmland and a subdivision into "conservation communities." A leading example of this is Prairie Crossing, near Chicago, which incorporates an organic farm and a subdivision. (See below.)

"If you give people a view of preserved farmland, they're willing to live on a smaller lot," says Randall Arendt, a conservation planner.

But some people say that putting housing developments among farms is part of the problem in the first place. Jim Lively of the Michigan Land Use Institute calls this type of "solution" a cosmetic fix.

"It's what we call 'well-designed sprawl,' " he says. "And if farmers don't perceive that the area around them is primarily an agricultural area, but is instead becoming residential, they tend to move out."

That decision could be triggered by anything from frustration over driving a tractor on now-busy roads to calls from neighbors complaining about farm smells.The latter can be especially disturbing for long-time farmers, who were there first.