Please make a case for farmland preservation

Okay, from where I stand, the whole farmland preservation thing seems to be promulgated by shit salesmen with mouthfulls of samples. “Promulgated” being a good word for this because the statements that farmland needs saving are presented more as announcements backed by egotistical fiat than as coherent arguments in service of making the world a better place.

But this is the SDMB, and if I’m going to hear a sensible, coherent argument for farmland preservation, then I am going to hear it here. So, please, make a case for farmland preservation and farmland preservation movements that rely on legislation and taxation to (attempt to) create the desired effects.

Thanks much.

Is that synonymous with open space preservation?

Quality of life doesn’t do it for you?

Can you really wander around, say, the Bay area in San Francisco, and say that it’s better off now that all the orchards have been covered with tiny houses and apartment complexes?

I could argue that keeping arable land handy is a good idea in case energy prices rise to the point that trucking in produce from the heartland no longer makes economic sense. Take the Connecticut River valley, for example. Some of the best farmland anywhere – nice rich soil, few rocks, and it’s all being built up. Not much of a contingency plan there. Meanwhile, the development lowers the property values for the people who were living in all the small towns because they liked the rural feel. So those people have to move further out, thereby ruining more rural land. And the only people who get rich out of this are the developers who buy huge plots and then build houses on the smallest possible lots that they can get away with.

I think you can make the same argument for farmland preservation that you can for zoning boards in general – people, left to their own devices, will louse up a good thing.

I would argue for preserving farm land for a few reasons. First of all, it’s preserving a way of life which is slowly eroding. Due to the huge corporate MegaFarms, it’s getting harder and harder for small farmers to make a living. . There’s something very sad about a farm which has been in the same family for generations having to be sold to a developer so he can build a thousand McHouses.

Secondly, I like being able to buy food knowing that it’s locally produced, sometimes organically grown. Buying twelve ears of sweetcorn from the grocery store just isn’t the same-- and it usually tastes like shit, too. Buying it from a farmer at a stand in front of his field, I know that the corn is fresh and wholesome. I can ask him if he uses GE seed, or pesticides.

I live in a farmland area, so I can buy locally grown and butchered beef, organic milk products and fresh, tasty vegetables. My apples come from a local orchard, my eggs from free-range farm chickens, and I can even buy a bag of locally grown grain which my grandma grinds into whole-wheat flour. It’s a good feeling knowig where my food comes from, that it’s wholesomely grown and harvested, and that the money I spend on it is going to support local folks instead of giant corporations.

Thirdly-- though admittedly this is more intangible-- there is a serene beauty to farmland which cannot be found when one looks at a strip mall.

No. Farmland only, since “open space” is both ill-defined and more inclusive.

You’re begging the question and no, it does not do it for me. If one farm could be converted into homes for sixty families, each on a one-acre lot, then I am not entirely sure how quality of life is enhanced by forcing them to be packed into high-density housing.

Never been there…well, I was in the summer after third grade, IIRC. Still, I’m asking you to make the case that the world is worse off because of it. I am not going to assume that it is; I’m asking you to make the argument.

Won’t that risk be factored into the value of the land qua farmland?

Does that really happen on a scale sufficient to worry about? Some people don’t like when change comes along, but that doesn’t mean that the world is a worse place because of it. A few people don’t enjoy the rural amenities they once had; but myriad people get affordable housing and some elbow room. Why is that a net loss?

I wouldn’t consider that a good argument for zoning laws. One can’t expect a loosely grouped collection of people to effectively negotiate with a single large entity, so it makes sense to have the state impose restrictions on where landfills may be located. I don’t see the same argument applying for farmland.

Locally produced food: One of the township trustees where I work is a cattle rancher. He buys his chicken from Meijers because he knows that he can get it fresh and free of any junk. Looking at it from another angle, I like television shows with Jessica Alba on them, but that doesn’t imply that the state should legislate or fund Jessica Alba Television Shows. Why is your preference for eating corn purchased on the street more compelling than my preference for J. Alba Shows?

Aesthetics: You are creating a false dichotomy. It isn’t farmland or stripmalls. I’ve seen many neighborhoods that are far more pleasing to the eye than farmland. Frankly, farmland is not attractive—if it were, why do so many people complain about having to drive through Nebraska? (In Ireland the farmland actually was attractive.) Shopping facilities can be attractive as well. But even if they aren’t, having something ugly in town may be a small price to pay for the benefit of affordable shopping. In the township where I work every single mother with children aged five or under lives below the poverty line. Why is being ugly sufficient reason to refuse allowing some affordable shopping?

Cultural Heritage: The cultural heritage of family farming may be worth saving via governmental fiat, especially if there is a market failure that doesn’t take into account the positive externalities of, let’s say, Centennial Farms. But that doesn’t imply that there isn’t ample marginal farmland that needs to be retired.

How about the old Malthusian argument, then? The world’s population is increasing faster than our arable land’s productivity already. If arable land area is decreasing too, then we’re headed for a crash even sooner, so we need to preserve it.

In the US anyway, once farmland is built on, it’s lost to farming permanently even if the houses are removed. The first thing a developer does after taking over a farm is to scrape off the topsoil and sell it. But it isn’t used to create new farmland elsewhere, only to make greener yards and gardens.

I can see two ways to approach it.

One way is to say we need farmland for Food Security (which sounds better when capitalized). This seems weak to me. If more farmland is required the market would price it in such a way as to keep it in that use.

Another line of thought is that preserving farmland is a good that city folk want and therefore should buy with their taxes. This seems to be a better argument.

By preserving farmland we slow urban sprawl. This means land inside the city/country line becomes more valuable. Valuable land goes to valuable usages. With less ability to run away from downtown problems, society would be forced to face and fix them. Building downtown would be a viable alternative to a greenfield site on the local ‘golden mile.’

So we would pay higher taxes and preserve farmland, and so also revitalize our downtowns.

Maybe you disagree, but I suppose a case can be made for it.

Well, whether or not you worry about it is up to you of course, but the concept of ‘urban/suburban sprawl’ is very real. In my area, the house I lived in for about 15 years went up in value almost $150,000 dollars in that time (from $90,000 in '83 to $230,000 in 2001). Any new homes in the area at similar square footage go for that price and up. Not that there aren’t cheaper homes in town, but they’re either much smaller (and we’re not talking about a huge place to begin with) or horribly run down. So, to find that ‘elbow’ room you’ve got to move out farther from the economic center of the region (we were already about 15 miles out), and the process continues.

Quality of life is not begging the question at all. It mostly * is * the question. Does having farmland and open space around measurably increase the quality of life? It’s not something that everyone will agree on – some people would pave over the entire planet willingly and never miss a tree. So if you’re not willing to accept aesthetics as part of the response to your OP (even though it’s not hard to find evidence that many people prefer uncrowed environs), then you’ve pretty much set up ground rules that make answering your OP almost impossible.

All I can tell you is that I grew up in a bedroom community and over 30 years saw all its open land and farmland converted into housing. Eventually none was left. It was probably a 45-1hour drive to the nearest decent hiking trail. I later moved to a town that took a pro-active role in limiting growth and established conservation areas all over town. It still had plenty of open farmland (although there’s too much building going on there now.) I know which I consider to be the preferable place to live. I’d willingly pay the higher property values of the second town over the first, because it’s flat out a nicer place to live. And I’d cheerfully vote my tax dollars towards buying and preserving farmland and contribute to organizations that do the same, just to keep what happened to my hometown from happening elsewhere.

Is there any reason to think that is a real risk? As the world gets wealthier, fertility drops. DasGupta (sp?) argues compellingly, IMO, that overpopulation is the result of poor markets for capital & risk. I would suggest that even if such a threat were real, it would be more effective to create effective markets for capital and risk to which the world’s truly poor can gain access than it would be to distort agriculture markets in the U.S.

I thought I read that the loss of topsoil was in fact uncorrelated with productivity. Interestingly, a Master Gardner explained to me that we can’t grow in sand because the nutriemajiggers can’t stick to the particle-dealies because the sand isn’t electromasomethinged and that this problem can be solved by churning compost—he used a word like humus or hummus or something—into the sand and easy-peazy, you’ve got arable land.

I guess I’m asking two things about these: First, is there any reason to think that these risks are high enough to be significant? (I don’t expect you to know off the top of your head, but I would appreciate it if someone who can make that case would do so.) Second, they’re not apocalyptic (sp?), just costly, and what reasons do we have to expect the costs of alternative solutions will be more expensive than the cost of the problem (discounted for the odds of it happening)?

Yep, it does sound better capitalized. That is one thing I’ve wondered about. If we consistently produce twice what we need, then if we only grow half, we’ll avoid famine. Unfortunately, a kernel of an idea isn’t going to do it. For example, does farmland preservation really produce enough overstock to cover us in case of a disaster? And since it’s production & not land we want, won’t it be less costly for the gov’t. to purchase comodoties in the market and transfer cash to the poor hurt by the high-price policy? That would be manipulating the price to make it better reflect distributional needs that the market can’t assess (I think).

City folk want farmland: Maybe. But to say that they want farmland isn’t the same as saying that we need to be preserving it right now. I haven’t seen any big reason to think that we are in danger of the amount of farmland becoming sub-optimal. I hear claims that farmland is being lost at such high rates, but in 1988 there were 994,423,000 acres in farms in the U.S. and in 2002 there were 940,300,000 acres in farms. I guess I’m not so sure that is a move to below optimum. Perhaps a better solution would be to encourage small dispersed developments so that the people are spread out among the farms, thus increasing the urban-folk surface area, so to speak, and give them greater access to the amenities.

Sprawl: I’m not convinced of the costs of sprawl. In fact, according to The Cost of Sprawl—2000, sprawl isn’t associated with urban decline, with the exception of the congregation of the poor and that is caused by racist attitudes rather than dissapearing farmland. (Taken from Planning & Zoning News Vol. 22 No.6, April 2004.)

But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Matthew Turner has recently posted a paper modelling development patterns when the actors do indeed value openspace. (I’m assuming that farmland is a subset of openspace.) According to his literature review, there haven’t been many good explanations for openspace within city boundries. His model, by taking openspace preference into account, seems to explain the result quite well. Even more interestingly, it suggests that the optimal solution indicates a natural underproduction of suburbs. In which case, preserving farmland may not be the issue so much as setting up exclusionary farms that stay farms (or parks, etc.) in perpetuity (more-or-less) as development happens around it. But this doesn’t imply that the total farmland needs to be preserved, but that development needs to be arranged to allow more people to have greater proximity to farms (open space). It may very well be that sprawl, in a sense, should be encouraged.
Thanks for the thoughts so far, everybody.

Just asking “isn’t quality of life good enough for you?” and leaving it at that as though it is prima facie is begging the question because you are assuming that preserving farmland improves quality of life. If I already lived in a community, then I might be harmed by the lost amenity of a farm, but the people who move into the neighborhood that repaces it may very well have a quality of life improvement that far outweighs my loss. For the question to be a statement in favor of farmland preservation it needs to assume that losing farmland causes a reduction in quality of life; but, in a sense, what I am asking is for you to show what the question assumes. Hence, it’s begging the question. (As I understand the concept.)

You don’t vote your tax dollars, you vote somebody else’s tax dollars. And I can’t legally up and hike across a farmer’s field nor use it for recreational purposes. If getting to a hiking trail is your concern, then preserving recreational land is what will solve your problem, not preserving farmland.

That effect is hardly evenly distributed, is it? Much of the world is not getting wealthier, but the reverse, and one of the corollaries is lack of contraceptives.

Great. How? And, while you’re at it, note how interconnected with the world is “the US agriculture market”. The US is a huge net exporter of food. Much of the world depends on that. If the US and all the other net exporters can’t increase food production as rapidly as population grows, there’s only one thing that can happen, and capital markets aren’t part of it.

Huh? Better look that up, then. Stuff grows better in good soil.

[quoteI guess I’m asking two things about these: First, is there any reason to think that these risks are high enough to be significant?[/quote]
:Shrug: What does “significant” mean to you?

First there have to *be * alternative solutions. Whaddaya got?

I neglected this:

I think that assumption fails, since you go on to equate it with parks and simple human way-of-life preferences. You can’t decide that you just don’t prefer to have farms, and that the food will somehow show up anyway. Farmland is better thought of as an industrial, wealth-producing asset, and its acreage as equivalent to factory production capacity. If it’s lost, less food is available, period.

This is not correct. Deep clay sub-soils or rock will not produce crops in anywhere near the abundance that a healthy topsoil will. Any beginner’s guide to gardening or farming will explain this in depth.

Well and good for a 10 by 10 foot flower garden. Totally impractical for a 350 acre corn field.
Anyway, where are the thousands of acres of sand fields that you would convert into farms, even if you had millions of tons of humus and machines to spread and “churn” it?

As for your OP, I don’t really care. I don’t live near a big city but I do own a farm so I’ll have something to eat and sell if you get hungry enough.

Just posting to add a link to the SF Bay Area’s best known farmland preservation trust, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. They make their own arguments in the essays under the Conservation heading and also the public policy article under Marin Farming:

While I can’t speak to farm presevation everywhere, but from a purely selfish aesthetic standpoint I do view the Marin farms as scenic adjuncts to the neighboring Pt. Reyes National Seashore and valuable enough to preserve in that context alone.

  • Tamerlane

I don’t have time at the moment to address this completely, but there are some points that I would like to make. I grew up in an agricultural community that has transformed into a suburb. My Brother-in-law’s family are all farmers in Eastern Washington, so I am fairly biased.

Agriculture and residential development do not mix. Farming is dusty, dirty work. Farm implements need to use the roads and are slow. There have been numerous accidents caused by people trying to pass a slow moving tractor. What happens is that people move out to the country, then immediately start complaining about the smell. County governments tend to repond to these complaints and farming activities start to become restricted.

Development drives the cost of land up. For farmers that own their land, they can take advantage of farm use exclusions. It becomes impossible for someone to find land to rent close to suburban areas.

It was those two previous points that finally drove my sister’s family from the Willamette Valley and into Eastern Washington. They now live in a farming community and are far more successful than they were here.

Finally, when agriculture is widely distributed, (ie, when the production areas are close to the distribution areas) there is a significant savings in transportation costs.

Exactly. I think that an argument about the value of ‘open land’ is a very different argument than the one about ‘farmland’.

You are not entirely correct about this. The area linked to is a working farm and also offers some of the finest cross country skiing and hiking locally. Farmland and recreational areas are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

You don’t care that I’d like to hear the case for farmland preservation well made? That’s pretty rude of you.

No problem. I was pretty torn whether to respond at all to any posts. Frankly, I am not interested in a debate; I want to hear the case for farmland preservation well made. I finally decided that it would be rude to just say “I don’t buy that” without giving some reason why. Even if you don’t have the time to make your full argument, the kernel of the argument will bring me more information, which is something I appreciate.

Right, and prices indicate where resources are best distributed. Farm productivity has grown, but land tilled hasn’t fallen nearly as much. Commodity prices are low because supply is so high. Either land needs to be taken out of production or demand needs to grow if we want commodity prices to be able to support farming.

I’m not so sure the facts bear that out.

FTR, the world begs the U.S. and Europe to cut their agricultural subsidies because they are so harmful to agriculture across the globe.

That’s not my job. One of the four stock arguments of a policy debate is Inherency, and it is up to you to show that absent farmland preservation, these problems won’t go away. If world population will predictably stop growing as the world becomes more wealthy, then the inherency argument isn’t compelling. The U.S. is 95% undeveloped. If the odds of a Malthusian constraint becoming binding is low, then it is better to use our resources efficiently now and save lives now and invest now, because there is still a shit-load of undeveloped land in the world and will be for quite some time.

I’m not debating you, I am asking you to make the case. My responses are to let posters know that I am taking their thoughts into consideration, and also to try to elicit further insights. I am not trying to prove that farmland preservation is a bad thing, I’m asking you to prove that it is a good thing. Doing so means that you need to show a harm in the status quo, that farmland preservation is what will solve it (preferably that it is the only thing that will solve it), that farmland preservation won’t cause more harm than it solves, and that it will solve the problem.

The Malthusian constraint may be a harm, but only if it can be shown to be a reasonable expectation. But even if it is a harm, it still has inherency difficulties because investing in LDCs would be effective and arguably much better for the world in the long run.

Well, farmland actually is generally considered to be an element of the class known as “open space.” At least, according to all the open space talk that I hear it is. “Open space” seems to merely mean “land sans buildings” and farms tend to have a lot of land sans buildings. You will also notice that it was suggested that urbanites may have a preference for the existence of farms which may justify a subsidy, and I was pointing out that a cheaper and greater welfare producing solution may be to have developments intermixed with farms. That would increase exposure to the desired good, farms, without requiring the quantity of farmland to stay constant. Food had nothing to do with the issue as it was addressed.

Interesting, though the corn fields in Michigan hardly make for picturesque leisure pursuits. Still, it is open, recreational land that you’re talking about rather than farms per se. In places where the likes of Appleton Farms are located, farms may indeed be the most valuable recreational land; however in places like mid-Michigan, farmland may be the least valuable recreational land. It seems that recreational-land preservation is what is in order rather than farmland preservation per se.

Thanks again, everybody!

One of the two main reasons on the pro- side are a reliable food source. If we subsidize food production, then if something goes amiss on the world stage, we at least can feed ourselves. However we are currently a major food exporter so this isnt really an issue.

The other good argument would be to create some openspace for others to enjoy, such as the previously mentioned mixed farms and trails. I personally wouldnt mind seeing more of these, but I am not sure that this is what most people talk about when they speak of preserving the farms. When I picture that I think of rather than open trails, jealously guarded fences.

I wouldn’t be opposed to this, in a very limited way such as a handful per state, if the farms were aesthetically pleasing in addition to being more accessible to outdoorsy people. If they are not, they do not produce enough tangible and intangible benefits to the community IMHO to be worth subsidizing.

The major issue as I understand it is practical: good farmland is often good building land, as it’s in valleys, relatively leve, and open. The two can come into conflict easily.

However, while you can turn farmland into developed land, it’s practically impossible to turn developed land into farmland. Developing land involves scraping off the topsoil and compacting the land to such an extent that you won’t be able to grow crops on it for the next couple millennia, even if you remove the houses and concrete.

Adding to what John Carter said about improving soil with compost: I did this in my small garden this year, and the results have been phenomenally good. However, I spread over 500 pounds of good soil in a space of less than 50 square feet: two 3’ by 7’ beds.

A single acre has 43,560 square feet in it. To improve an acre in a fashion similar to how I improved my garden, I’d have to use almost 260 TONS of good compost and other organic additives.

And that’s starting with a fairly decent clay soil; from what I remember, sand soils leach nutrients worse than clay soils and therefore require more additives.

What does all this mean?

Agriculture in the US is feeding our population pretty well right now–but we don’t have a huge buffer on it. And we’re losing topsoil in this country at a pretty spectacular rate (about 2 billion tons a year). Irrevocably destroying farmland just doesn’t seem like a very wise long-term strategy to me.

Last note: Marty Strange is the most eloquent defender of farmland preservation I’ve ever read. Google on him, and you’ll find some very interesting articleas, including Transforming the Rot Belt.