by Lynn Miller

copyright 2009 the author

tailholtThe city of Los Angeles was built upon some of the most fertile and productive farmland on the entire planet. There were historical environmental expedients at work in that evolution and development. What is lost is lost, at least in our time. But it is a convenient and complex example of the contest at work when we speak of any effort to save the precious and limited planetary resource we identify as farmland. Back in those early days the farmers simply moved a little further out. There was ample resource.

It may not seem so, but there are thousands of efforts, projects, programs and organizations all working in their own way to try to save farmland from being scooped up for development. And those efforts, large and small, regional and national, have enjoyed tremendous success of late but there is a nasty caveate. Land is being saved BUT for what ultimate purpose? Land is being protected – or perhaps better put – land is being ‘set aside’ so that it will not be called upon in the near future for subdivision and development. Something is lacking and that something is a prime directive which culturally and publicly insists that this valuable resource be actually USED for farming. Land that is simply set aside, regardless of how strong the legal protectorate, will inevitably see its use-mandate be tested.

With the recession/depression, construction has slowed to a standstill but that has not stopped developers and planners from projecting on into the not so distant future. For them, it is possible that tracts held in abeyance by local and regional land use efforts in the name of “open space” actually provide a defacto “land savings account” for future development resource.

The whole farmland preservation gambit might be best served if we back up a ways and take a larger view of the issues at hand. There are a variety of “players” in the efforts to save farmland. Some want the land to stay undeveloped, to stay open, even if it means that it be a virtual “set aside.” Others want the land to remain farmed and, as such, to remain in a state of controlled or limited flux. And still others say preserved land would matter far less IF farming were granted its true value to humanity, a value that mirrors the fact that without a sufficient ready supply of healthy food humanity would perish from the earth. Therein it would be a given to all of us that farmland is precious. 

First We Must Save Farming

I recently sat in on a fascinating organizational meeting. It was billed as the first of four such get-togethers. A group of farmers and consumers were exploring the value in forming a local (central Oregon) farm producer’s coop or association. They were ably assisted by a highly competent facilitator from a regional resource and development group. The discussion quickly came round to what the farmers needed: ready access to strong markets.

The farmers and ranchers have great and good product, fixed costs, and a struggle to make ends meet.

And then there was a sideline as one participant said he had a mobile slaughtering business and wished to expand his capability to offer USDA certified meats and in particular grass-fed beef.

He had many potential customers and no ready supply of product.

And a third piece of the puzzle came into play as anxious local food consumers in attendance spoke of their wish to assist in preventing their suppliers, local farmers, from going out of business for lack of market.

These people were totally hooked on fresh local meats and produce and did not want to be deprived.

Another couple spoke of their owning an abandoned commercial building and wondered if it was possible to build a farm coop store.

The assets exist to tie together a cooperative with a retail core.

The group was rounded out by organizers who spoke of their keen interest in connecting all of these dots into a working cooperative entity. And they spoke of cooperative refrigeration and freezing units, inspected mobile slaughtering units, and pooled liability.

Community organizers were prepared to roll up their sleeves and make something positive work.

After two short hours of discussion (which included attacks on how we price our produce, be it raw milk or ground beef or pumpkins), everyone came away understanding that they had all of the pieces required to make something truly exciting and useful occur. They were at the threshold of forming a farmer’s marketing cooperative or association which would give them a leg up and a better chance at profitability.

Now this meeting might have been beneficiary of a series of coincidences but I rather think not. I think the facilitator did his homework and brought the key components together. And I see no reason why such a program or plan couldn’t work pretty much everywhere.

Why do I discuss this in tandem with a discussion about farmland preservation? Because WHEN we make our farms and farming profitable and fully connected to the surrounding communities we give that land the best opportunity for self protection. That is why I applaud the efforts of the Small Farms Conservancy to tie the re-entitlement and invigoration of farming to all discussion of farmland preservation. And, to fill out the circle, we need to include the education of the next farmers along with the needs of aging farmers in the equation.

Save good farming and you save good farmers. Save good farmers and you save farmland. Save farmland and you feed the people. Teach good farming and you create new farmers. Reclaim idle farmland and you resettle America. It’s a call to farms.