Farmers plant seeds of revolt over sprawl

As urban growth squeezes out farmland, counties find ways to preserve

Skagit County is renowned for two things: its annual tulip festival and the ubiquitous bumper-sticker slogan "Pavement Is Forever."

In a place where the piny forests and churning streams of the Cascade mountains meet the water of the north Pacific, every emerald acre is seen as an irreplaceable part of the county's identity.

With some of the most fertile land in the United States, Skagit County, Wash., is green with growth practically year-round - from berries to apples to bulbs. And for generations, its farmers have been the primary stewards of the land.

But more and more, Allan Merritt and other local growers are finding themselves in a vise of urban growth from Seattle to the south and Vancouver, B.C., to the north. "We have to gear ourselves for development," says Mr. Merritt, who grows jonagold apples. "You can't stop it; you can only guide it."

For more than 20 years, counties from New York to Washington State have tried to save agricultural land from development. But so far, most programs have met with limited success. According to one survey, some 15 percent of American farmland was lost between 1982 and 1992.

Now, many areas are responding with a raft of laws to curb the spread of mini-malls and megastores. The result is a new momentum to protect not only open space, but farmland specifically. Indeed, with commodity prices low and America's aging corps of farmers nearing retirement, vast amounts of agricultural land set to change hands could be at stake.

"Counties or states need to clarify, if the goal is to maintain farming or open space," says Jeff Daniels, author of "Holding Our Ground: Preserving Farms and Farmland in America." "People don't understand a farm is a business" and needs special considerations.

What's being done

To this end, states, counties, and charities across the US are taking preservation steps:

*Late last year, New Jersey approved a constitutional amendment to earmark $1 billion over the next two years to protect farmland.

*In California's Central Valley, the nation's most endangered farmland, the Packard Foundation has pledged to spend $175 million during the next three years to preserve farms and open space.

*Last month, Maine voters approved a $50 million public-land bond for land conservation.

*Massachusetts recently required buyers of land in agricultural areas to use the lot for farming in an attempt to stop the building of estates.

In fact, voters nationwide have passed 200 initiatives to protect agricultural land, according to a survey by the American Farm Trust.

Although there are several ways to preserve land for farming, purchasing development rights is the most prevalent method. Generally, the county or state pays for the land, and, in exchange, the owner signs a deed that prevents development.

Since the development value is usually far above the agricultural value, counties or states will try to to keep down the property value so other growers will keep farming and even expand their operations. Some counties also offer tax incentives for property used in agriculture.

In many ways, the Northwest has been a leader in such programs. One of the first was started in the late 1970s in King County, Wash. It raised $50 million to offer farmers the opportunity to sell their development rights. It also required a minimum 36-acre lot in agriculture zones to prevent the land from being broken into smaller, unfarmable parcels.

More than 12,000 acres were preserved, but the program eventually lost momentum. "It slipped off the radar screen," says Melinda McBride, director of the Puget Sound Farm Trust. "People thought, 'We saved it' and went on to other things."

Limited success

The preservation program helped stave off strip malls and parking lots, but working farms were increasingly bought up and turned into tony residential estates for the new bevy of high-tech Microsoft millionaires. In turn, these estates have driven up property taxes, making it harder for farmers to continue using the land or expand their business.

Still, King County is better off than neighboring counties. While it lost 2 percent of its farmland from 1992 to '97, Snohomish County - which has no program - lost 18 percent.

Up in Skagit County, meanwhile, residents have shown an overwhelming desire to protect farmland - even if they have to pay to do it. A survey found that 60 percent of respondents would be willing to pay a small tax.

The county's answer to these problems has been a four-pronged approach aimed at dealing with the underlying causes for failing farms in addition to land-development issues. For example, it aims to support the infrastructure needed for farming, such as feed and fertilizer shops.

So far, the Skagit County Farmland Legacy Program has made modest progress. It has purchased only 1,000 acres, but that's not surprising, says Merritt, an SPF board member. "The farmers have bled, sweated, and teared for years over this land. They will be reluctant until someone puts their necks out in a big way."

That could be soon. A few weeks ago, Dick and Olga VandeKooy of Harmony Dairy Farms sold development rights to 156 acres - the largest parcel to date. Their neighbor quickly followed suit.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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