Farmland Fadeout

Waste Management

DOWN the road from the converted barn where we live, Dom Provost wants to turn 50 acres of meadow and woodland into a "destination resort," with a golf course, tennis courts, condominiums, and plenty of parking for Winnebagos. This could be a boost to the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism, and besides it's his land so why not? "Why not" is because those 50 acres are also good for agriculture, which is why local and state agencies for several years have been wrestling over whether to let the land be built upon.

The story of Dom Provost's 50 acres is being played out all over the country as United States farmland continues to disappear at an unsettling rate. By the time you're through this newspaper, another 100 acres will be gone. Over a year's time, that's a million and a half acres lost to development.

Farmland covering an area larger than Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New Hampshire combined has been lost to urban sprawl over the past two decades. According to the American Farmland Trust, 30 percent of the country's agricultural production takes place in counties inside or next to metropolitan areas. And when agriculture is squeezed onto marginal land, farmers need to use more fertilizers and pesticides - which can harm water, soil, and animal habitat.

Then there's the 3 billion tons of topsoil blown or washed away because of erosion, which some experts say is worse than the "dust bowl" years.

Government agriculture policy has been one of the culprits. Uncle Sam began emphasizing grain exports in the early 1970s, and this led to a resurgence of "sod busting" in some areas. Farm bills in the 1980s tied crop subsidies to soil conservation, but there were enough loopholes to drive a John Deere through.

"The $40 million we spend each day on farm-support programs shortchanges conservation while encouraging production of crops that are in oversupply," says Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust and a third-generation beef and dairy farmer from northern California.

The farm bill signed into law last November signals an important turnaround in government policy.

Among other things, it pays farmers rent for the time they take their land out of production to help prevent soil erosion, and it expands the types of lands eligible for this sensible and farsighted subsidy. It toughens the sanctions against farmers who violate conservation compliance plans, mainly by cutting their federal benefits. And it gives financial support to "Farms for the Future" programs under which states protect farmland by purchasing development rights.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont was right to call it "one of the most important environmental laws passed by this Congress."

Now comes the hard part, which is political will and financial commitment. President Bush's policy regarding wetlands is "no net loss." He should state the same thing about farmland, firmly and clearly. It's a national resource just as deserving of protection as wilderness or coastal zones; when they're gone, they're gone forever.

Federal financial priorities need to be shifted. The government this year will spend $3 billion on conservation, but nearly $11 billion on commodity price supports. That ratio is out of whack. The 1991 budget includes $6.8 million for a program called LISA (Low Input, Sustainable Agriculture), which finds ways to break the fertilizer/pesticide habit. But that's a drop in the bucket compared with more dubious schemes like "star wars."

Individuals can help, too, by supporting groups like the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a nonprofit group that provides technical expertise to farmers and farm agencies. Donations to AFT's revolving fund to buy farmland or development rights have permanently protected nearly 40,000 acres. The organization has just issued a six-point plan for protecting agricultural resources that should be required reading for every lawmaker.

It may well be that the greater good would be served by having golfers instead of cows wandering around Dom Provost's 50 acres. And property rights shouldn't be lightly overruled. But the way things have been going with US farmland also makes it clear that we need to preserve and restore as much of that land as possible.

QR Code to Farmland Fadeout
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today