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Stay of Execution for Farmland

We Need a Stay of Execution for Farmland… until farmland preservation gets figured out

A pardon for farmland!

Amnesty for farmers!

And the world court for large banks!

with Lynn Miller, Paul Hunter, Shannon Berteau, Klaus Karbaumer, Ryan Foxley, Ken Gies, and Ferrel Mercer representing Oregon, Washington, Missouri, New York, and Virginia

Below is a summary from the most recent AFT analysis of the loss of farmland to development. We have asked a few Journal readers and editors to share thoughts on the topic.

According to American Farmland Trust:

  • Between 1992 and 2012, almost 31 million acres of farmland were lost, equal to all the farmland in Iowa,
  • Nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously shown,
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation,
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland, and
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on 1-to-20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent.

Stay of Execution for Farmland

Lynn Miller wrote:

From this moment forward, it is inexcusble that any of the remaining farmland on the globe be removed from production or possible production by development. The laws of economics, the vagaries of capitalism, and the infrastructure needs of communities must NEVER be allowed to change the usage determinations of farmland. It must be unthinkable to take any action that would result in the loss of farmland.

Paul Hunter wrote:

One of the biggest hardest questions you note is how to make further development of any land suitable for farming as completely UNTHINKABLE. The trouble is that the motivation for investing in land is pure profit, and is one of the ways that the Haves keep out the Have-Nots. And although there might be an occasional few politicians who would find favor in the idea of preventing development on farmland, the profit engines all run the other way. Even your arrangement for some of your land, those kinds of conservation easements and setasides, are not concerned with saving farmland but saving the larger resources of nature and the wilds, including wetlands, prairies and forests. We may need to include farmland AS A PART OF NATURE, whether in use or as potential for future farming and grazing if and when the need should arise. Of course that would have to include thinking in terms of polyculture, and outlawing pesticides and herbicides. Maybe even outlawing farming beyond a certain scale of field size and equipment weight.

Yet there I am right away stuck taking the position that any change which even mildly threatens our economic engine is an impossibly heavy lift, no matter the good it might do. Maybe the voice of an old tired fool who should have bought some better ground and worked it when he was young. I found myself thinking of your contact with local native tribes when you first bought your land, how you quickly arrived at something deeper and more fundamental at issue—that the tribe has access, and need not ask permission. If I’m remembering it aright, that is the kind of change we seek, an opening to another value system entirely.

Lynn:

Is it not perhaps past time to make selected, targeted and repeated arguments against profit engineering? If it is thinkable, and doable, to use deed restrictions and covenants to protect lands for stated environmental and biological reasons, why do we apologize for doing the same in the name of farm lands and soils. How we stand in defense of farmlands, whether that be with hat in hand or with shovel in the portfolio, is going to make the difference. One view is that farmland is potentially a safe and beneficial way to be with nature (while producing food) which may only be availed IF there is farmland to protect. Time to take from the Haves and Have Nots and place farmlands in and on the common ground BEFORE it is too late. Anything less is UNTHINKABLE.

Shannon Berteau wrote:

I think I am too anti-capitalist to participate in this discussion. Profit and growth as a way forward must die. The wealth (food, clothing, shelter, land, industry) must be evenly distributed. We have left an entire generation to rot, thinking there is no place for them, believing they are dispensable. With the increasing droves of people sheltering in cities over the last decades, and the looming lack of resources, you would think they (city planners) would be scrambling to secure acreage within close proximity to feed their masses. Unfortunately, with the droves of people moving to our cities we also need whole neighborhoods to be built to house them. There goes your farm land.

Lynn:

Engineering should follow and not lead. In other words, I believe we need to say “Hands off farmland – Period,” then, with this understood, allow that engineers figure out how and where to fit people into the remaining landscape.

Klaus Karbaumer wrote:

Thank you for inviting me to join this discussion. Here are my points: This is a very complex issue with no simple answers. I think it will be hard to discuss the topic globally, no matter how interesting and important that might be, we should focus on the situation within the USA. According to different sources, which everyone can look up on the Internet, the country is losing from 2 to 9 acres PER MINUTE to development. And while that doesn’t mean all the land disappears under roads, residences or commercial buildings, since there are also parks and lawns, it is a huge loss of agricultural land, i.e. fields, meadows and pastures. Now we have had that kind of loss for a long time in this country and obviously it hasn’t kept down production. Quite to the contrary, nowadays we have surplus production in many agricultural ‘industries’ as they are being called. More than enough to feed the still growing population. The rub is, most of that growth of agricultural production has been accomplished with ever increasing inputs in the form of technology, based on fossil energy. Only incurable optimists, here we have the “dreamers’ of agriculture, can hope that this will go on much longer. In other words, the high yields we have today, might be a thing of the past earlier than we can anticipate. The situation will be aggravated by the uncertainty that climate change is bringing. Already now we see the fragility of climatic conditions we take for granted. There is no guarantee that food production in the USA can continue on the path we are used to. If we were a rational and conscionable society, we would prepare for a changing world, not drift along, till climatic catastrophes and/ or disappearance of cheap energy force us to make drastic changes in a short time with the inevitable repercussions. For that we have to 1) rebuild our entire economic system into a low input system and 2) relocalize our economy. Farmland, especially close to population centers then becomes very valuable, and that is why we cannot continue to decommission it for other purposes. Now, people will say, we need residences, commercial buildings etc, where are we supposed to build them. Urban areas, the way they are sprawling now, are wasting a lot of land. Smart cities are beginning to increase the density, even save money this way. Of course, we also have to understand that way too much arable land now goes into feeding meat animals, with a different diet we can live with less.

Another aspect of loss of farmland pertains less to the productivity of the land than to its function of being home and workplace in one. With the coming storm of job losses due to it seems the unstoppable continuation of computerization and Artificial Intelligence – some experts talk about almost 45 % of the population being made redundant in the production of goods and services – we have to think about what we will do with all these people. They will need to find something to do, that is emotionally, mentally and physically rewarding and stabilizing, in my eyes that would be small scale farming. Therefore farmland needs to be protected.

P.S. I do not think that politically it would ever be possible to put a stop to land sales- the country is too capitalist and profit oriented for that, but trying to make the sale of the farm as a means to provide income for the ‘golden’ years unnecessary with a more generous Social Security system should be an option. Older people are getting squeezed between fixed incomes and rising medical costs, but it doesn’t have to be like that, if only the country wanted to learn how other rich countries handle these issues. For my wife and me, that is not a problem since both of us have the benefits of pensions stemming from careers outside of farming.

These are basically the most important points I can see.

Ken Gies wrote:

In order to throw my hat in the ring I have to confess that I am not just a farmer, but an ordained preacher, too. When I address the issue of farmland I have to go back to Eden where man was broken. Whenever I think of farmland trusts I not only see the degradation of a “good” planet (to quote God Himself) but I see that humanity suffers from a high level of dysfunction. I have quite a broad experience base in land use by humans.

I lived in intentional Christian communities for over a decade, worked alongside First Nations and beginner farmers in the Yukon Territory, and have watched the ebb and flow of people on farmland here in Central New York for nearly 20 years, besides growing up on a 1500 head feedlot in the Peace River region of British Columbia. In each setting there were some folks that proved worthy of the trust given them, but a great number had little drive, no gratitude for the gift, no vision, no sense of purpose, no desire for personal betterment, and no plain old work ethic. I have also watched helplessly as a number of farm boys in their 30’s were given paid for farms and lost them in 5 years! So I have to factor in the human element in the loss of the resource.

To me part of that loss is the misapplication of profit motive. Instead of stewarding resources for a long term, gradual payout for a lifetime of comfortable living, individuals choose to extract all the juice from their land as quickly as possible. This leaves us with destroyed land and destitute people…. to me, a double loss. All across the country farmers are killing themselves because they are losing family farms due to who knows what market forces. Which matters more? The lives or the land? The land goes cheap to some developer because nobody can afford it, or in some cases, want it. Just sell it and divvy the take, is the survivors’ attitude.

Now back to the argument. The bone you tossed into the kennel, loss of farmland is very real wherever I go. I see a lot of good land idle or reverting, between my home in Central New York and down into Virginia where I travel to get fertile turkey eggs for my poultry hatchery. Evidently there is not enough money to be made by keeping the land active. It must be profitable to be sustainable as has been said.

BUT there is a bright side here! I have met many aspiring farmers who bought a 10-20 acre parcel and have made it pay with a mix of pastured birds or goats (both conventional and organic), veggies and maybe a milk share or an artisan value added product. And I know that there are “city farmers” who do well with only 1 or 2 acres. So, in order to make the preservation of farmland viable, we need enough functional people to manage the gift of what good land remains undeveloped, AND a functional market system run by egalitarians who can rise above petty personal (or corporate) greediness and see to the greater good of our burgeoning human population both in the city and the country.

An African visitor told me that land was easy to obtain in his country, but all seed was very expensive and controlled by the government. Another snag for us to puzzle through. In another African country owning land was nearly impossible to obtain, let alone settle on, because of the constant political upheaval. Political peace seems to be a prerequisite for land stewardship and preservation. Finally, consider Russia and Venezuala as examples of government run economies. They have not faired well.

So, freedom, peace, and longterm land ownership appear to be important to the equation. That combined with the foibles of humanity definitely leave us in a challenged place.

Oh, how I long for a utopian solution to our dystopian dilemma… NEXT!

Stay of Execution for Farmland

McIntosh binding, photo by Lynn Miller

Ryan Foxley wrote:

Good discussion Lynn. Thanks for invite. Here’s my two cents worth…

Though it certainly is the big-monied, captains of development that are driving this rampant devouring of farm land – they are not operating in a vacuum. They are responding to the desires of a market – a class of people who seemingly have more money, or more likely, more willingness to take on enormous debt in order to live the fantasy of the “American Dream,” than Americans of the recent past. That Dream has changed a lot since it’s inseption in the 1950’s. A one-car family living in a little suburban brick house is a thing of the past. Now it’s a 3500 sq foot house with a threecar garage and the cars to fill it. And where do these people work to qualify for the debt to live in bloated houses built on prime farmland? In our area, they work for Microsoft and Amazon and Boeing and Costco and Starbucks – some of the biggest economic drivers in the world, feeding the planet’s appetite for planes, computers, coffee and Stuff. These companies have more economic clout that many countries. Here in the Puget Sound this insane globalized, computerized, consumerized, corporatized economy is on full display. It feels very much like a runaway train with nothing to slow it, except a collapse of the very systems that are propelling it forward. Sadly, as long as grocery store shelves remain well stocked with watermelons in January and twelve different brands of gluten-free bread, it is unlikely that the population at large will gain the collective will to take meaningful steps to change the current development modus operandi. Full bellies require that we preserve farmland. Let’s pray that we can stop the madness before empty bellies force us to.

Lynn:

If each and every one of us was told tomorrow that the option of selling our farmland, or any farmland, to developers, or developing that land ourselves, was no longer legally possible, does that go to the core of the most fragile rationales we have held for endgames for farmers? If everything I have done, and sacrificed for, were to constitute – through the appreciated value in our land – the only parachute for my wife and I in our old age, the entirety of our life’s savings as it were, does that not point with pain to one of the nerve centers of the discussion? I am interested in the engineering of deed covenants which would brand lands to sacred-use distinction for the future – and to find ways in that where non-profit structures could be employed to pay farmer/landowners for a portion of development rights. In this way society could choose to PAY to hold lands to farming. To replace the profit motive with a non-profit solution.

Shannon:

You bring up a good point, Lynn. The historical ideal for a farmer has been that they leave their farm to one or all of their offspring to continue with the endeavor of farming. If that is not an option, having some other young people come along and take over, allowing the elder farmer to stay on as advisor and be cared for until their time has come, sounds like a good option. But there may be those that want to cash out, who are done farming and don’t want to stay on the farm. There is also the possibility of someone taking over a farm in their 20s and deciding in their 40s that they have found a different calling. They shouldn’t miss out on the ability to cash in, property is an investment. A farmer who has added value over the years with well designed buildings, systems, and soil improvements should have a way of being repaid, other than turning it over to development.

Klaus:

All the proposed possibilities, submitted by the participants in this discussion so far, have to be considered within the framework of our legal system. Farmers have traditionally, fiercely defended individual property rights and, except for Eminent Domain, nothing in that system could stop a farmer from selling his land to whomever he wants to. Zoning regulations pose certain restrictions of what can be done with that land, but it is my experience that farmers often are not in favor of these either, when they would impede selling to the highest bidder. But as we are talking about farmland conservation for the purpose of farming, the solution lies in making it lucrative for the farmer. Now, of course, sometimes people get greedy, and that shouldn’t be supported, but as I indicated earlier, a more generous Social Security system, like other countries have, can be the way out. Far away from population centers there exists probably very little pressure to sell to a developer, but that wouldn’t have to mean that these farmers couldn’t participate. For the other reasons I mentioned – climate change, decreasing abundance of fossil energy, as well as loss of jobs due to computerization – farmland preservation close to urban areas is the most urgent issue.

Stay of Execution for Farmland

White Horse plow, Amish country farmland.

Ken:

Wow! Everyone has such good points! I do glean an overall sentiment that we all are aware of a vast disconnect between food producers and the food consumers. Aside from designer foods that people brag about eating, real nutritious food, grown regionally or locally, seems to be invisible to many consumers. There is also the problem of the sheer volume of food needed to supply any large city. Places like New Jersey, they used to be Garden State, cannot even feed itself. Plus the unseasonal produce that Ryan mentioned gives the illusion of unending supply, that money can buy. I appreciate Paul’s comment on developing a new value system. If my knowledge of history is correct, many great nations fell when they depleted their soils and starved themselves out, particularly in the Fertile Crescent. This indicates that our present problem has been foreshadowed historically. We have had a shot across the bow from the Dust Bowl era. That we need to do something is evident. There are some small steps being made such as the Maine Farmland Trust.

Years ago I heard the term “usufruct” which is defined as “the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.” It was used in reference to the earth itself. We are allowed “usufruct.” It is true… try not paying property taxes, or not dying. We each get a limited time to do our thing here. We can’t guarantee that succeeding generations will honor our wishes, dreams, teachings, or even laws. We can only sound the alarms, attempt to educate and then stand back and watch to see how it all plays out. This applies to farming and life skills. It applies to pretty much every area of life.

Lynn, you posed the “what if” question of being legally restricted in what you could do with your land. Already there are places where many aspects of farming are regulated. I can’t just dig a big old pond without permits, for example. Also, your fear that the restricted land use would affect your retirement or passing it on is very real. I have four adult children who want no part in our farm businesses. We hired one of our kids back for $15/hr on the books with Workman’s comp. She does not want to work for us after this summer however. Around here, even Amish kids are looking to enterprises other than farming. Sometimes it is necessity, and sometimes it is preference.

Unfortunately, anything is THINKABLE, Lynn. Someone somewhere is thinking about reducing property rights and ownership. Someone is looking at ways to leverage their agricultural products over ours, and someone is looking to drain the wetland behind my 15 acre bacon-strip of land for “other uses.” There isn’t even a way in to it!

The UNTHINKABLE part of this is that many people will starve this year because good land and good seed is being held hostage to governments. If we put someone in charge of our land, what will they do with it?

Weather is important, too. It is a force big enough to put any government in its place. Ultimately, the poorest will starve because they can’t afford the staples of life, because someone with more money is buying their traditional diet right from under their noses to feed themselves in a shortage.

So YES! PROTECT FARMLAND! The question is what is the best long-term mechanism to accomplish this goal for the unknowing masses of unborn people that we are thinking forward to. At present I do not see a method that I trust based on what I know of history and humanity.

Ferrel Mercer wrote:

I doubt that I have anything to say on this topic that Wendell Berry has not been saying for decades with much greater eloquence than I can muster. However, I cannot but speak having been given the opportunity.

I whole-heartedly agree with the attempt to make the loss of farmland unthinkable. I agree with Paul on the difficulty of making something unthinkable in the short term as this requires a change of culture which is the work of generations. I would hope we would also make it unthinkable that a few would have great excess when any are in want, while not going as far as espousing even distribution. (I agree with the historian Will Durant that natural inequality of ability leads to an inequality of wealth. I follow him in saying that it is the role of government to mitigate this inequality and not let it run, as it currently runs, to its exploitive monopolistic natural outcome.)

While we seek to stop any kind of loss of farmland, perhaps we can also try other tactics to help increase healthy sensible food production. Here I am thinking of the work of Joan Dye Gussow, Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan. If we could replace the monoculture of ornamental grasses in uburban yards with a more beautiful array of food producing plants as a norm, we could go a long way toward building an awareness of what loss of farm land means and an appreciation of the joys of producing, preparing and consuming food you produced with you own hand (or that was produced by a neighbor).

I have recently read reports of developments built around a central market garden in the way that they are built around golf courses. Perhaps we can get to the point where the golf courses are turned into market gardens. Let’s cast a wide net with our thinking, try many things and see which ones work. It seems to me, to offer the best hope for feeding the coming climate refugees, that we need to start thinking about it.

I’ll close with a couple of thoughts in verse. From something I recently wrote myself:

If the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the conquest of nature by man, I suggest that the twenty-first century will be the conquest of man by nature.

Paul:

Who should productive farmlands and wild lands belong to? Who should own these treasures? Most real farmers already know they hold farmlands in trust not just for the human future, but for the future of everything. Many, if not most, feel themselves accountable for any gain or loss to the land’s health during their tenure. But investors, developers and corporate entities can only make shallow jokes about rare sicklefish and endangered spotted owls while they seek to manicure and refashion the overheated planet. They estimate the board-feet of standing lives that outreach, outlast and outdistance them, that they still itch to drop. Productive farmlands are but a subset of the wilderness that should still surround us, open and inviting, where most other species are left to carry on their ancient and complicated dance.


This discussion has gone on for decades, and the contributions above are our small bits dropped lightly in that river. It is a justified fear that, with the current trends, we may soon lose the option to protect farmland. That would be a tragic end to a magnificent promise, the one which has us working with nature and the land to feed, cloth and house ourselves while we contribute to an ever better world.

If you wish to add your voice, please join us. When SFJ receives responses it will publish them. If there are stories which illustrate the problem as well as possibilities, we’d like to be able to share those with everybody. Thank you, LRM

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