Why Preserve Farmland

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Why Preserve Farmland

Saving farmland is an investment in community infrastructure and economic development. It supports local government budgets and the ability to create wealth locally. In addition, distinctive agricultural landscapes are often magnets for tourism.  People vacation in the state of Vermont or Steamboat Springs, Colo., because they enjoy the scenery created by rural meadows and grazing livestock. In Lancaster, Pa., agriculture is still the leading industry, but with the Amish and Mennonites working in the fields, tourism is not far behind. Napa Valley, Calif., is another place known as a destination for “agro tourism.” Tourists have become such a large part of most Napa Valley wineries that many vintners have hired hospitality staff. Both the valley and the wines have gained name recognition, and the economy is thriving.  Agriculture contributes to local economies directly through sales, job creation, support services and businesses, and also by supplying lucrative secondary markets such as food processing. Planning for agriculture and protecting farmland provide flexibility for growth and development, offering a hedge against fragmented suburban development while supporting a diversified economic base.

Economics

Development imposes direct costs to communities, as well as indirect costs associated with the loss of rural lands and open space.  Privately owned and managed agricultural land generates more in local tax revenues than it costs in services. Carefully examining local budgets in Cost of Community Services (COCS)studies shows that nationwide farm, forest and open lands more than pay for the municipal services they require, while taxes on residential uses consistently fail to cover costs.  Related studies measuring the effect of all types of development on municipal tax bills find that tax bills generally go up as communities become more developed. Even those communities with the most taxable commercial and industrial properties have higher-than-average taxes.10

Local governments are discovering that they cannot afford to pay the price of unplanned development. Converting productive agricultural land to developed uses creates negative economic and environmental impacts. For example, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the population of Atlanta, Ga., grew at about the same rate as that of Portland, Ore. Due to its strong growth management law, Portland increased in size by only 2 percent while Atlanta doubled in size. To accommodate its sprawling growth, Atlanta raised property taxes 22 percent while Portland lowered property taxes by 29 percent. Vehicle miles traveled (and related impacts) increased 17 percent in Atlanta but only 2 percent in Portland.

Environmental Quality

Well-managed agricultural land supplies important non-market goods and services. Farm and ranch lands provide food and cover for wildlife, help control flooding, protect wetlands and watersheds, and maintain air quality. They can absorb and filter wastewater and provide groundwater recharge. New energy crops even have the potential to replace fossil fuels.

The federal government owns 402 million acres of forests, parks and wildlife refuges that provide substantial habitat for wildlife. Most of this land is located in 11 western states. States, municipalities and other non-federal units of government also own land. Yet public agencies alone cannot sustain wildlife populations. Well-managed, privately owned agricultural land is a critical resource for wildlife habitat. With nearly 1 billion acres of land in farms, agriculture is America’s dominant land use. So it is notsurprising that farming has a significant ecological impact. Ever since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, environmentalists have called attention to the negative impacts of industrial agricultural practices. However, converting farmland to development has detrimental long-term impacts on environmental quality. Water pollution from urban development is well documented. Development increases pollution of rivers and streams, as well as the risk of flooding. Paved roads and roofs collect and pass storm water directly into drains instead of filtering it naturally through the soil.  Septic systems for low-density subdivisions can add untreated wastes to surface water and groundwater—potentially yielding higher nutrient loads than livestock operations.  Development often produces more sediment and heavy metal contamination than farming does and increases pollutants—such as road salt, oil leaks from automobiles and runoff from lawn chemicals—that lead to groundwater contamination.  It also decreases recharge of aquifers, lowers drinking-water quality and reduces biodiversity in streams.

Keeping land available for agriculture while improving farm management practices offers the greatest potential to produce or regain environmental and social benefits while minimizing negative impacts. From wetland management to on-farm composting for municipalities, farmers are finding ways to improve environmental quality. www.farmlandinfo.org

Heritage and Community Character

To many people, the most compelling reasons for saving farmland are local and personal, and much of the political support for farmland protection is driven by grassroots community efforts. Sometimes the most important qualities are the hardest to quantify—such as local heritage and sense of place. Farm and ranch land maintain scenic, cultural and historic landscapes. Their managed open spaces provide beautiful views and opportunities for hunting and fishing, horseback riding, skiing, dirt-biking and other recreational activities. Farms and ranches create identifiable and unique community character and add to the quality of life. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the contingent valuation studies typically find that people are willing to pay to protect agricultural land from development.

Finally, farming is an integral part of our heritage and our identity as a people. American democracy is rooted in an agricultural past and founded on the principle that all people can own property and earn a living from the land. The ongoing relationship with the agricultural landscape connects Americans to history and to the natural world. Our land is our legacy, both as we look back to the past and as we consider what we have of value to pass on to future generations.

Public awareness of the multiple benefits of working lands has led to greater community appreciation of the importance of keeping land open for fiscal, economic and environmental reasons. As a result, people increasingly are challenging the perspective that new development is necessarily the most desirable use of agricultural land—especially in rural communities and communities undergoing transition from rural to suburban.

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