Stateline Story

States Planting Seeds Of Farmland Protection

  • May 23, 2000
  • By John Nagy

State agricultural officials and anti-sprawl forces won a small but significant victory in their campaign to preserve U.S. farmland May 2 when the Ohio House of Representatives voted unanimously to put Gov. Bob Tafts $400 million brownfields cleanup and open space preservation bond initiative on the November ballot.

Last year, Ohio, Montana, North Carolina and Utah joined fifteen states that already had established statewide programs permitting public institutions to become players in the farmland protection game. But Ohio lacked a funding mechanism, and that state's voters will now have the chance to sharpen the teeth of their program by approving funds for the purchase of land that will be reserved for farming forever.

"I'm extremely happy that the bill is going to be put before the voters in November and I'm confident that the voters will support it," said the measure's sponsor, Rep. Jim Mettler, a Toledo Republican.

Mettler is just as enthusiastic about the momentum a yes' vote will give to the reclamation of contaminated industrial sites and the preservation of green space for parks and recreational uses.

"The beauty of this legislation, I think, is that it is broad enough that local communities can decide which of those things is most important to them and they can access these funds" for those needs, he said.

Ohio farm preservation officials say financial help is eagerly awaited. Like most states, Ohio has long allowed private land trusts to buy land development rights or set up easements that let farmers sell or bequeath their land confident in the knowledge that it will be kept in crops or pasture and not be sold to developers. But private efforts have a long way to go.

"Land trusts are just getting started here," said Joe Daubenmire, the state farm preservation division's assistant manager. He calls public purchase of development rights (PDR) and purchase of agricultural conservation easements (PACE) programs "critical, cornerstone tools" to state farm protection efforts.

"We've lost half of our farmland since 1950. We've had record building permits issued in the last three years. And we really need some controls," Daubenmire said.

Waiting For Official Data

The problem that officials see in Ohio exists around the country. All observers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to state officials, farmers, preservationists and their critics -- agree that the United States is losing farmland.

But those wary of overzealous controls say farmland loss is far from being a serious threat, either to the land itself or to national food supplies. No one is certain how much farmland has disappeared or how fast it is going.

Estimates reported by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in December suggesting that farmland was disappearing twice as fast in recent years as it had before 1992 came into question last month when officials announced that a computer glitch had sounded too shrill an alarm.

"The numbers were so far off that a lot of us sat back and said, there's a real problem here'," said Samuel R. Staley, an economist and self-described anti-sprawler who directs the Urban Futures program of the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute from his home in Ohio.

An NRCS spokesperson said the agency expects to issue new figures in June.

Despite the current lack of data, states continue to expand preservation programs with an array of measures. They include conservation easements, agricultural districting laws, preservation task forces, urban growth boundaries, right-to-farm laws protecting farmers from nuisance lawsuits, and relief from prohibitive property and estate taxes.

"Some states are taking it very seriously," said spokeswoman Betsy Garside of the American Farmland Trust, a prominent non-profit farm preservation organization.

AFT, which coordinates state and local preservation activities and publishes a list of the twenty most-endangered agricultural areas in the country, estimates that the amount of state funds available for farmland protection rose 58 percent nationwide since February 1999. Meanwhile, the number of acres permanently protected climbed 17 percent.

Gaining Governors' Attention

Long an interest of non-profit organizations like AFT, farmland preservation emerged as an important item on the agenda of the nation's governors, according to the National Governor's Association. In Delaware, Gov. Tom Carper (D) has proposed increasing farmland and open space preservation funding by $10 million. Maine Gov. Angus King (I) has promised efforts to relieve his state's farmers of undue tax burdens.

But the most extravagant proposal came from Gov. Tom Ridge (R) of Pennsylvania, whose state has lost more than 24,000 farms since 1970. "We intend to preserve 100 farms in 100 days, from the Farm Show to Earth Day," Ridge told Pennsylvanians in his February budget address.

Ridge declared success on April 13, noting that the state had safeguarded 101 farms after spending $6 million on over 12,400 acres with ten days to spare. Ridge's long-term plan will spend $100 million on preservation over the next five years.

Advocates insist the action came none too soon. The section of the Piedmont that runs through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia ranks second on AFT's endangered lands list, just behind California's Central Valley. But The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Harrisburg, says that Pennsylvania's danger is exaggerated, and predicts that the state's farm-loss figures will be among those most diminished by forthcoming federal data revisions.

Weighing Politics and the Marketplace

Whatever the status of farmland losses, developers are unhappy about restrictive regulatory measures during a period of high housing demand.

So are some farmers, who want the option to take advantage of skyrocketing residential land values and provide for their retirement. One angry group recently drove circles around the Loudoun County, Va., government building to protest policies that local farmers say are being installed by early waves of suburbanites who aim to kill growth now that they've staked out large plots with bucolic views.

Their complaints are gaining steam in a relatively recent counter-assault on the anti-sprawl movement.

Staley, a leading critic of "smart growth" and author of several reports on land use, advocates a free-market approach to land use decisions that would let real estate values and consumer choice drive policy. He warns that heavy regulation prevents flexible responses to the unpredictable growth patterns and challenges of the future.

Staley says that public moves to save farmland amount to much ado about nothing. "Half-acre lots sell because people want them ... There is no indication that the American agricultural industry is being threatened by urbanization. We have an abundance of land."

"If you take the space-shuttle view, then sure" there is plenty of land, says AFT's Garside, who disagrees with developers' contentions that subdivisions are not gobbling up the nation's best farmland. She points to the nation's "smart ancestors," who naturally settled on the most productive soil they could find and built their lives around it.

"I hope none of us actually think that this is a free-market situation. What has driven the kind of development that we're seeing now ... [are] policies that have been put in place at some time over the last fifty years. They're policies that favor of road-building, that encourage builders to build further out rather than redevelop in cities," she says.

Garside says preservationists want new policies "that help provide states with the tools and the options to best protect their farmland."In "The Vanishing Farmland' Myth and the Smart Growth Agenda," Staley argues that far more farmland goes to "nonurban uses, such as forests, pasture, range land and recreational uses," than goes into building communities of spacious single family homes. He notes that contrary to the warnings of activists, farm productivity is at an unprecedented high." And if it's a toolbox that states want, Staley suggests that some tools might be smarter' than others.

"We prefer ... privately-funded conservation easement programs and then tax-credit programs. The next level would be publicly-funded PDR programs and conservation easement programs. The regulatory approach urban growth boundaries, agricultural zoning, that type of thing tends to explicitly use the political process to dictate land use," Staley says.

Looking Eastward

But at this time, many state agriculture officers appear to be less concerned with choosing between politics and the marketplace than they are with taking steps to save farms.

Lawmakers in South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia each considered publicly-funded farmland protection programs in 2000 that supplement easements with a variety of other measures at each end of the spectrum. On April 18, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) signed legislation requiring the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation to establish rules for making state grants to local PDR programs and to have at least one farmer on its Board of Trustees at all times.

States are also interacting more on preservation, with officials exchanging information on what works best from policy formation through program implementation. And when it comes to saving farmland, says Betsy Garside, all eyes look to New Jersey.

Backed by Gov. Christie Whitman (R), New Jersey voters elected to boost the state's 38-year commitment to saving open space in 1998 by approving nearly $1 billion in preservation funds to be spent in $98 million parcels over the next ten years. The legislation directed 40 percent of those funds to the states' farmland coffers, swelling available cashflow to $80 million this year and an average of $60 million over the next ten years, according to the New Jersey State Agriculture Development Committee.

On May 8, state officials announced that they had teamed with local officials in 15 counties to purchase development rights to 145 farms, raising the state's totals to 74,881 acres saved on 554 farms since 1983.

Explanations for the state's keen interest are simple, says committee spokeswoman Hope Gruzlovic: New Jersey is the Garden State. "Agriculture is very important, not only to New Jersey's economy, but to the overall quality of life in the state."

State figures show that New Jersey lost 210,000 acres of farmland between 1978 and 1998 and the governor's New Jersey Outdoors council identified 500,000 of the remaining 830,000 acres as vital to sustaining both the farm industry and overall quality of life.

These efforts have earned the attention of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio farm advocates who have organized several bus trips designed to expose interested farmers to the benefits and details of protection programs. The most recent trip, according to Joe Daubenmire, took nearly 170 farmers, state lawmakers and agency officials on a four-bus tour of successful projects in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Indiana state Senator David Ford (R) emceed much of the four-day circuit.

Ohio is a relative newcomer to the tour and included only ten farmers in its delegation, but Daubenmire is encouraged that they'll be able to plant seeds of interest at the local farm bureau level. "We looked in detail at what the programs there are and how we can bring back some of the lessons and Ohio-ize them. We're trying to do them twice a year so that we can build more grassroots support," he said.