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The sky is not completely dark at night. Were the sky absolutely dark, one would not be able to see the silhouette of an object against the sky.

  • Why We Are Losing Working Farms

    The Situation

    Today’s farmer faces unique challenges which threaten to continue the trend of developing our working farms without consideration of sustainable farming practices. These challenges arise from trends in several (seemingly unrelated) areas, which combine in unexpected ways to produce unintended results.

    Growth to accommodate the needs of a growing population naturally seeks as a solution the path of least economic and regulatory resistance. In many cases, this solution manifests itself in the development of available farms located close to population centers. To the farm owner, who is often land rich but cash poor, this is an option, as existing federal tax laws practically guarantee that the farm must eventually be sold and developed to pay the requisite estate taxes.

    One seemingly obvious solution to preserve our farms and promote sustainable farming would be more regulatory policy. Wetlands and floodplains have long been protected under federal legislation generated years ago. Why not enact similar mandates to preserve prime agriculture soils or working farms? Keep in mind the law of unintended consequences though, as trying to tighten the laws to preserve agriculture soils will actually promote the loss of farms, as farmers will be inclined to sell their farms if they perceive threats to the value of the property. Each of us would probably do the same if we thought the value of our house would be diminished from pending legislation. Moreover, anything tied to more regulation or legislation will simply lead to more legal battles that in the long run achieve little toward farm preservation.

    A New Way

    If the current approach is not working, what, then, is the answer?
    One potential avenue to explore may be to learn from the efforts of non-profit organizations, whose approach to preserve open space frequently encourages limited development of farm acreage, while preserving the balance of the farm as open space. Current economic realities, though, suggest that the non-profits’ approach may require some modification, as past successes were driven partially on the ability to take advantage of the tax codes in times of economic surpluses. The success of the many non profits has been in thinking “outside the box” and seeking cooperative solutions. The next generation solution may involve incentivizing those involved in the development process to embrace sustainable farm practices for both crops and animals as part of development proposals. There is also a large opportunity to use some of the land set aside for open space for farming practices.

    Additionally, we have to become more proactive. No plan to save the farm should depend on tax benefits, government grants or subsidies. The plan has to work at the local level and it has to provide fair compensation to the farmer. The farmer, after all, will be assuming the financial risk and uncertainty of adopting a nontraditional and unproven approach to preserve a smaller but sustainable farm operation. Since local land use law is not set up to protect farms, the farmer, developer, local municipal leaders, and the local community must caucus and agree on how best to proceed. Initially, many developers may not be quick to embrace this approach, and same probably may also be true for municipal leaders, as this is an uncertain path that will rely heavily upon the belief in a better plan and a trust that neighbors and governing bodies will act responsibly.

    To achieve the desired result, it will be necessary to set aside existing zoning and land development ordinances that normally control density and design. Instead, the focus must be on identifying farm resources needed for the farm to remain economically viable, and then crafting a plan for the balance of the land that compensates the farmer for effectively restricting forever a portion of his farm for continued farm operations. Compromise will be a component, as past efforts to preserve open space frequently prioritized setting aside wetlands, floodplain, steep slopes, wildlife habitat, tree masses, lands important as public views, etc., none of which are necessarily compatible with preserving high quality farm soils or preserving the operation of a farm.

    Procedural approval of the agreed plan will also present challenges, as most municipalities cannot spot-zone. One solution to this may be found in the use of overlay districts to existing zoning. The federal government may prove to be a hindrance though, as the laws governing the protection of wetlands and high quality watersheds offer no room to look at the bigger picture and possible competing priorities. Educating the general public will also be an important element if this approach is to gain support, as many non-farmers do not fully appreciate the benefits of saving a farm.

    Saving our farms goes beyond just approving land development plans. We need to provide for the long term operation and management of the farm. Near-term, providing the farmer is able and willing, the operation of the farm can remain with the existing farmer. Eventually, however, the existing farmer will be physically unable to continue with day-to-day management of operations, so any plan for saving the farm must provide for the long- term operation of the farm by providing for a farm manager. This includes providing the farm manager with farm facilities and property. The farm manager will not own the property, but will have the opportunity raise his family from income generated by the farm. The underlying assumption here is that, given the opportunity of land to farm and a place to live while doing it, there will be people with the ability, knowledge and drive to operate and manage the farm.

    Good, proven programs can help new farmers get started and manage. Pennsylvania offers a good example of programs that help. The Penn State Extension Program offers instruction for farmers on farming practices, writing business plans, disease control and farm management. The PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) has programs to train farmers in soil management, water management, and business plans. PASA also supports buying fresh and buying local, which is important as the famers need a local market in which to sell the farm product. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative goes even further. In a CSA the farmer brings in local people to make modest investments each growing season, and possibly volunteer at the farm, in exchange for each member sharing in the vegetables and produce grown that season.

    Why Should We Care About Saving Independent Farms, Anyway?

    Does the goal of preserving independent farms reflect the interests of the majority of our population and, if not, should the majority even care?

    As result of technological advancements, food supply is, after all, not a problem, is it? And previous predictions of worldwide famine have not materialized. Today, we grow more food per acre in the typical large industrial farm operation than ever before.

    This “success”, however, ignores some of the ugly scars that the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pharmaceutical enhancements cause. In Time Magazines’ August 3, 2009 publication, Rebecca Kaplan states “The US agriculture industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals, and humans”. She then goes on to further discuss how current, large-scale farming operations are contributing to “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, which are devoid of fish.

    Even ignoring the damage associated with the success of producing food more efficiently, are we sure we’re not at risk of food shortages now and in the foreseeable future? The answer depends not only on the continued production of food, but also on the safety and reliability of its distribution system. On a global basis, we know that food distribution is neither totally consistent nor reliable. Millions of people face food shortages every day. Thinking locally, the more concentrated farming operations become, the greater our exposure to crop and animal disease.

    As the global economy continues to expand and take root, is it reasonable to expect that the food we import is safe? As a practical matter, we need to realize that the world food production and distribution system is far too vast and complex to be effectively monitored, so we are inherently assuming some level of risk .Other risks posed by the global economy include potential disruption in supply resulting from war or disease or, perhaps, a root cause we have yet to anticipate.

    Basic principles of risk management dictate diversification, so to minimize our risk we should de-centralize farming into the hands of many.

    In addition to risk management, there has been growing public sentiment about giving ourselves a voice regarding the quality of the food we eat. Sustainable farming for crops and animals is already taking hold. Many individual consumers, and companies and owners of restaurants, now insist on buying locally grown produce, as the food tastes better and is believed to be healthier. The sustainable farm also leaves a more environmentally friendly carbon footprint by avoiding the usage of heavy chemical and pharmaceutical enhancements used in the industrial farm complex.


    Given all the arguments in favor of saving our independent farms, why, then, is it not a priority to save them? And whose responsibility should it be? Does the responsibility rest with the farmers themselves, many of whom have been dutifully working their land for generations? Should the municipality’s elected officials be held accountable for saving the farms and do whatever has to be done to make it happen? What about our elected state and federal officials? Since regulation and legislation enacted to this point with the best of intentions have actually contributed to the problem, we clearly need a new way of thinking at this level.