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Preserving the Land for Agriculture

by Rebecca Briggs

Originally published in Spring 2009 Biodynamics.

view over farmland in Joseph, OR

Black and white cows grazing in a lush green meadow, bright red cherries hanging in clusters on trees, a fifty-six unit housing development across the street. Long vines of hops strung up like clothes on wash day, hundreds of farm workers, like a colony of ants, expertly harvesting delicious strawberries, a shopping mall next door. These scenes ask the question: “Are we giving away the farm?”(1)

Perhaps in some cases it is not better to give than to receive — or at least it seems so in the case of farmland preservation. The image of “the farm” holds great power in the American imagination. It harkens back to the country's roots, to its ability to provide food for its citizens, to economic security, to agricultural values imbued in cultural life, to ideas of a “simpler” life than commonly seen in “developed” areas. The ability of the farm to maintain its existence in the face of non-agricultural development has been a hot topic for decades.

Productive farmland is a resource that, once given over to other land uses, disappears permanently — at least in relation to a human lifetime. Like other natural resources, agricultural lands are finite. When agricultural land converts to residential or other uses, we tend to speak of it as “lost,” or as no longer providing the benefits associated with agricultural production.(2)

Farmland preservation efforts attempt to save this land in the face of development pressures resulting from urban expansion, which become ever stronger because of national trends toward city-based lifestyles. Preservation of farmland is seen, in this sense, as an integral element of the nation's environmental, social, and economic sustainability, both in a consumptive sense (the use and economic values of agricultural production) and in an inherent, possibly spiritual, value sense (preservation of the existence of farmland, regardless of its production or any actual effects on the valuing individual).

With life so greatly changed and daily activities so far removed from any intimate contact with the land, many people today still seek assurance that the bond between themselves and the land that supports them remains intact. A sustainable society requires a sustainable environment . . . . We are thus challenged to think about the land in new ways and to communicate what we see to people whose connections to the land are less direct but just as essential.(3)

Loss of agricultural land to development results from two kinds of growth: growth on the “urban fringe,” i.e. in metropolitan counties that are not dense enough to be “urban,” and growth “beyond the urban fringe,” i.e. in rural areas often in non-metropolitan counties. While growth on the urban fringe results in low-density development (two houses per acre or less), growth beyond the fringe results in single-family houses scattered throughout the landscape. Beyond-the-fringe growth is not “urban,” but it still changes the surrounding landscape and may convert productive farmland to residential uses. This may lead to significant conversion, especially as larger-lot residential parcels become more popular in rural areas.(4)

Why Does Farmland Matter?

Preserving productive agricultural lands includes all three prongs of the term “sustainability”: economics, environment, and society. There may be direct economic benefits, such as local sales and national exports of farm products, that bolster economic stability, but there may also be more intangible benefits — such as the maintenance of open space, landscape integrity, cultural heritage, and rural character — that derive from the preservation of farmland.(5)

While the readership of this publication likely needs little persuading about the benefits of maintaining farmland, the same cannot necessarily be said for the public at large. The categories below summarize the major arguments in favor of preservation.

Food Security and Supply

The growing populations of the United States and other countries require the maintenance of a land supply adequate to produce the food necessary to feed them, unless a country is to rely upon imports. As any introductory economics class will teach us, affordability depends upon adequate supply. Many are now arguing for a precautionary approach in which the United States retains more land than is currently necessary for domestic food production in order to meet future needs — especially if we cannot be sure how much, or if, technological advances in agriculture will increase productivity.

Economic Stability

The American Farmland Trust (AFT) has argued that communities often falsely view development as a means of generating income, even though development does not actually tend to result in increased local economic sustainability. Instead, the switch from agricultural to residential lands may increase property taxes and the burden of infrastructure costs on a locality. After conducting eighty-three “cost of community services” studies, the AFT concluded that agricultural and other open resource lands provide communities with a net financial benefit because they require little public infrastructure as compared to developed lands. This is true even when one accounts for the fact that agricultural lands are subject to preferential tax rates.(7)

Perhaps most obviously, agriculture provides local jobs and adds to the state gross domestic product (GDP). When a critical mass of farmers exists, however, the local economy also enjoys the benefits of an agricultural infrastructure — businesses, services, and processors that cater to the needs of local farms. Thus, while agriculture may account directly for only a small percentage of the nation’s workforce and GDP, it can exert a significantly greater influence on the economy because of the “interrelated web of industries” that constitute the food and fiber system.(8) This web extends to include agricultural supply retailers, manufacturers, warehousers, mechanics, energy producers, transporters, miners, processors, creditors, brokers, marketers, and food retailers. The true economic impact of agriculture at both the local and national levels therefore includes the value of income and employment added by all the various related industries, although it is not usually analyzed in this way.

Environmental Protection

Not all agriculture is the same, and not all environmental consequences deriving from agriculture are the same. The conventional farms — the ones that ignore soil health, use genetically engineered seeds, or confine animals in environmentally destructive factory conditions (the farms, in other words, that do not adhere to the organic, much less the biodynamic, ideal) — may actually be inflicting grave environmental injury. But this is not to say that agriculture cannot be environmentally positive. One could argue, as the AFT does, that even the worst agricultural practices are more environmentally friendly than the alternative of development.

Conversion can generate new environmental woes:

Urbanization brings streets and rooftops that run stormwater directly into drains and drainageways instead of filtering it naturally through the soil. There are new pollutants as well, such as oil leaked from automobiles or chemicals leached from suburban lawns.(9)

In addition to requiring fewer environmentally detrimental inputs, agricultural lands that are thoughtfully managed (not simply industrially farmed) provide demonstrable tangible benefits such as wildlife habitat and forage, groundwater recharge, wastewater filtration, floodwater control, watershed protection, and clean air. The ecological importance of private lands, paired with the development pressures exerted upon them, necessitates a high prioritization for the protection of such lands. While private agriculture may not be the best land use if environmental protection is the only goal (especially if it entails unsustainable farming practices), it is probably better than careless development.

Each piece of farmland, furthermore, exists within the context of the overarching landscape in an environmental sense. Multiple farms and other land uses make up ecological landscapes: “[f]ew farms are large enough to encompass an entire landscape or watershed, and even those farms that are exceptionally large are ecologically linked to neighboring land, including nonagricultural land. Everybody is somebody’s neighbor.”(10)

Because of the interrelated character of landscape ecology, land fragmentation due to development poses environmental problems. Agriculturally fragmented lands are also ecologically fragmented lands, as parcels become divided and put to different and denser uses. The fragmentation resulting from development also tends to lead to difficulties in achieving cooperation or consensus on environmental stewardship: land that used to belong to several farmers may belong to hundreds of individual landowners once it has been sold and developed.(11)

Preservation of Landscape and Cultural Characteristics

The rural landscape is more than simply open land, however; it is an expression of community character and values.

[S]ense of place is about landscapes of which people are proud: they are landscapes influenced by human work and craftsmanship, and the perception that this work is done well for good reasons. It is also about landscapes in which people live comfortably: they are landscapes that are understood and known as hearth and home and where people feel they belong.(12)

The Jeffersonian, agrarian way of life may be idealized, of course. The urbanite’s idea of the farm may be of a quaintly pastoral landscape, subject to an unworkable “sentimental pastoralism — the wish to live in rural harmony by means of industrial exploitation.”(13) This limited idea of farmland, however, does not delve into the necessarily far-reaching concepts of sustainability. It does not address the historical and economic systems that perpetuated cheap production at the expense of food’s vitality, fair wages, and environmental stewardship. Such an observation, of course, has broader implications than simple land preservation: it suggests the need for new economic perspectives, for new understandings of property rights, for healthy and fulfilling lives for farm workers, and for thriving and supportive local communities.

Ultimately, agriculture must be particularized to its locale. The physical and cultural landscapes necessarily differ. In the words of Wendell Berry:

What is the best way to use land? . . . We are not asking what is the best way to farm everywhere in the world, or everywhere in the United States, or everywhere in Kentucky or Iowa. We are asking what is the best way to farm in each one of the world’s numberless places, as defined by topography, soil type, climate, ecology, history, culture, and local need. . . . The agrarian standard, inescapably, is local adaptation, which requires bringing local nature, local people, local economy, and local culture into a practical and enduring harmony.(14)

Conclusion

Preserving our farmland is about more than crafting the right land use policy. It is about more than creating legal mechanisms for long-term use and sale restrictions. It is about more than denser, well-planned urban development. All of these are valuable, of course, but our farmers will also need cultural and community support; opportunities for training, mentorship, and continuing education; fair wages and benefits; and social and economic systems that connect consumers with their food sources in healthy and productive ways. Preserving the land requires a broad view and new thinking, and the insights of the biodynamic community can make a valuable contribution to these efforts.

Notes

1. D. Schellenberg, “Are We Giving Away the Farm?” Oregon Law Review 77:987-991 (1998), 987.
2. R.E. Coughlin, J.C. Keene, J.D. Esseks, W. Toner, and L. Rosenberger, The Protection of Farmland: A Reference Guidebook for State and Local Governments (Washington, DC: National Agricultural Lands Study, 1981), 16.
3. Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture, America’s Private Land: A Geography of Hope (Washington, DC: NRCS, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1996), 15-16
4. R.E. Heimlich and W. D. Anderson, “Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond: Impacts on Agriculture and Rural Land,” Agricultural Economic Report No. 803 (Washington, DC: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2001), 2.
5. Coughlin et al., 16; J. Freedgood, L. Tanner, C. Mailler, A. Andrews, and M. Adams, Cost of Community Services Studies: Making the Case for Conservation (Washington, DC: American Farmland Trust, 2002), 6.
6. Heimlich and Anderson, 28-29.
7. American Farmland Trust, Farming on the Edge (Washington, DC: American Farmland Trust, 2002).
8. K.L. Lipton, W. Edmondson, and A. Manchester, “The Food and Fiber System: Contributing to the U.S. and World Economies,” Agricultural Information Bulletin No. 742, Economic Research Service (Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, 1998), 1.
9. NRCS, 22-23.
10. NRCS, 19.
11. NRCS, 23.
12. I. Howard, “From the Inside Out: The Farm as Place,” in Philosophy and Geography III: Philosophies of Place, A. Light and J. M. Smith, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 151.
13. B. Donahue, “The Resettling of America,”in The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land, Norman Wirzba, ed. (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Howard, 2003), 35.
14. “The Agrarian Standard,” The Essential Agrarian Reader, 33.


Rebecca Briggs is Communications Director for the Association. This article draws upon some of her research for her master’s thesis in the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program: “Oregon’s Agricultural Lands Preservation Policy: An Analysis of Effectiveness in the Willamette Valley.”