The only periodic magazine I now subscribe to is Small Farmer’s Journal, which is published in Sisters, Oregon. It is a wonderful publication that extols and discusses (as we try to do here at Peeper Pond Farm) historically traditional methods of farming for small farm operations. Although it is only published quarterly, I eagerly await and enjoy reading the stories, subscriber letters, and instructional/research articles contained in each issue. Although I could devour the contents in a day, I try to read a little at a time, judiciously spreading it out over weeks after the arrival of each magazine.
The latest issue I received (Volume 42, Number I – the 165th Edition), contains an interesting compendium of subscriber letters discussing a standing issue—our rapidly diminishing farmland resources. It is entitled, “We Need a Stay of Execution for Farmland…until farmland preservation gets figured out.” The discussion was triggered by some alarming statistics recently released by the American Farmland Trust that documents the dramatic loss of 31 million acres of American farmland between 1992 and 2012. That amount of farmland is roughly equivalent to all of the available farmland in the State of Iowa. Of the farmland acres that were lost over that twenty-year period, roughly one-third of it rated among the best (and presumably most productive) farmland in the nation, and 59 percent of the total loss was attributed to development encroachment from expanding urban areas.
Having witnessed first-hand the dramatic loss of small family dairy farm operations over the past 35 years (an issue I have discussed extensively in previous website posts), I read all the subscriber’s perspectives with great interest. All of them, like me, are appalled by and concerned about these trends. In my mind, there is no question that we need to find a way to make farming more profitable for farmers, and I initially thought that would be the central focus of the debate. Two of the contributors (Klaus Karbaumer and Lynn Miller) noted a significant contributing problem–the appalling lack of a meaningful retirement program for farmers, many of whom have little savings or income to support them when they become too old to continue farming. I would also add the need for affordable health benefits and liability insurance, because small farms generate very low profits and incomes to support and protect the farmer and his/her family. Since all land is valued more highly for its non-farm development potential than for its agricultural productivity, farmers are often forced to sell their land to pay for expensive operations, treatments, and law suits and, later, for retirement.
Although the new Affordable Health Care act has helped make “basic” health insurance more affordable, I would contend it does very little (if anything) to control or cap the spiraling cost of health care services and pharmaceuticals, much of which must be borne by the consumer in the form of co-payments, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket expenses not covered by the most affordable insurance policies. Remember, farming is a dangerous, high risk operation that increases the potential cost of basic health and liability insurance for farmers. Public tax subsidies to offset or reduce personal insurance premium costs may ultimately fail to ensure affordable public health care costs, if they can’t effectively bring spiraling health care costs into a more reasonable balance with the public’s ability to pay for them. The public will invariably absorb those future costs either in the form of higher taxes to cover policy subsidies or higher premiums, co-payments, or deductibles. Ironically, it is a similar imbalance between the agricultural production and urban development value of farmland that the contributors desire desperately to reverse.
I would also point out that one big reason for the growing (pun intended) disparity between the development and agricultural value of land is our ability to make each available acre of farmland more and more productive through technological advances and bio-engineering. The farmer’s monetary cost to employ those high-tech advances also drives the trend towards larger and larger industrial farm operations, in order to generate the higher production profit margins needed to finance those improvements. Small farmers have very limited access to capital and their profit margins are too low to justify the investment costs. Therefore, the smallest farm operations (especially those closest to growing or expanding urban centers) are the most likely to be lost to development, unless they are close and suitable enough to the biggest operations that they can be acquired and absorbed into the neighboring monster. This trend has been especially damaging to the dairy sector.
Another commenter, Shannon Berteau, suggested that “with the increasing droves of people sheltering in cities over the last decade [presumably including their suburbs, which, for most large urban areas, are the front line for urban encroachment on farmlands], city planners should be scrambling to secure [vulnerable farmland] acreage within close proximities to feed their masses.” While his observation seems, at face value, to be a sensible option to relieve the pressures of development encroachment, it overlooks the fact that the farmlands that would be most valuable to cities and their suburbs are not typically located within their corporate boundaries. As a former city and regional planner, I know that municipal annexation laws are limited by law in most states and the best farmlands outside corporate boundaries to protect from development aren’t usually made available for municipal annexation until they have already been sold to developers who are seeking access to urban utilities or services to increase their land’s development value and potential. The zoning laws that prescribe or control development potential in cities cannot, in most areas, be legally applied to lands outside the city’s boundaries. Therefore, most planners don’t have the ability to effectively plan to protect those hinterland farmlands.
You also need to understand that cities and towns are inherently expensive to operate and maintain. They require significant ongoing public investments in utilities, roads, and public services to satisfy the basic needs of a growing urban population. Therefore, landowner taxes are usually higher in cities than they are in rural areas. Farmers can’t afford the extra costs they would incur to be incorporated by a city, so they resist any municipal annexation effort. That’s the leading reason why annexation of farmland is only sought when the owner is ready to take it out of agricultural production. For these reasons, Shannon’s suggestion is not as sensible or workable from a practical perspective as it seems at first blush.
Overall, the general consensus of all the contributors to the discussion was that the greatest ongoing threat to future farmland loss is the basic profit motive and nature of our free market system. Most of the writers condemn the economy for its failure to value farmland and farm production as highly as it does alternative development options. I admit that’s a problem, but I also must admit that our economic system has spawned agricultural innovations and advances that have increased food production to the level that we can affordably feed ourselves and many other nations that are not able to do so on their own. Admittedly, I noted earlier in this post that those technological advances have driven the rise of mega-farms which has contributed to the loss of small family farms, but I can’t, as the other contributors apparently do, simply overlook or ignore the significant benefits those advancements have bestowed on other nations, especially those populations that might face increased starvation without it. I also can’t point to any other alternative political or economic system existing in the world today that has achieved anything close to the level of agricultural productivity as our own free market system, even despite the imperfections I can find in it. I have even noted in earlier posts (please see my February 17, 2018 post entitled, “What the Reaper Sowed,” and my September 9, 2018 post entitled, “Smithsonian”) that those technological advances in agricultural productivity made it possible for cities and urban centers to emerge because they made it possible for many people to pursue other lines of work instead of having to grow their own food for themselves. If we never enjoyed any of the advances in agricultural productivity our economic system created, we might not be able to feed the urban population we have today or we might lose even more of our land resources to house the population than we do today.
I don’t deny that our economy and its vitality depend greatly on access to abundant, low-cost natural resources that can be exploited for profit. My own State of West Virginia remains one of the best examples of the ravages, both physical and social, that can occur when outside interests exploit natural resources and remove the wealth they create. However, I really find it difficult to lay the full blame of the loss of our farmland exclusively on the negative consequences and social inequities that often arise from Capitalism. After all, a significant percentage of the farmland we have lost in West Virginia has resulted not from over-development and urban sprawl, but from the gradual conversion of farmland to forestland due to farm failures, the lack of a next generation to continue farming, and rural population decline.
Unlike other states, West Virginia has very little flat land for farming, so our agricultural base depends on small family farms, which struggle to compete with larger commercial operations. That, too, is a problem influenced by competitive economics, but it is not a problem that is unique to our country and our economic system. In fact, many of the economic problems that farmers face today are shared by farmers in other countries, some of which do not operate under the same free market economy that we practice. Every issue and every economic system has benefits and costs depending on how you choose to look at it or whose perspective you view it from. The same can be said for every political and economic system that exists today, even though none of them seem to offer an ideal or practical solution to the core problem the contributor’s debate—how to save farmland from excessive development over long periods of time. I also don’t pretend to have a solution for it, primarily because I think all the contributors have overlooked an even broader issue that must be addressed before any effective long-term solution to farmland loss can be devised.
I feel that the farmland loss has become increasingly important to us all because of our exploding population growth–an issue that I did not see mentioned in the article. It drives both our growing need for developable land and food. According to my 2015 World Almanac, the world’s human population has grown from 2.557 billion in 1950 to 4.088 billion in 1975 to 6.090 billion in 2000 and was recently estimated to be 7.176 billion in 2014. That tells me that the number of mouths we ultimately need to house, employ, and feed has nearly tripled since 1950. While I agree that we do have choices we can make in how we house and employ those masses, those choices will only buy us some time without effectively addressing or resolving the 600-pound gorilla hiding in the room. It would be a temporary solution, akin to loosening your belt to control a weight problem. No matter what happens to any individual country, we need to recognize that we live on a planet that has limited resources to sustain us. There is and will always be a practical limit to how many people any country or our planet can support.
We sometimes forget that the survival of our species is subject to the exact same limitations (and ultimate fate) as any of the prior 99 percent of all species that have lived on this planet and are now extinct. Overpopulation and the environmental stresses eventually caused by it has been a critical factor in the vast majority of those prior extinctions. If we need a human example to remind us of that, consider the extinction of the culture that existed on Easter Island. They weren’t killed off by the excesses of Capitalism or, for that matter, any alternative socio-economic system. They first trapped themselves on the island by consuming all of their forest resources (so they couldn’t build any boats) and then gradually starved to death as their population exceeded their island’s ability to feed them. When you consider the pattern and trend in human population growth, we all face the same ultimate fate regardless of whether or not we can fix our current system or transition to a different economic system that can effectively stop the loss of farmland to development. Viewed from this perspective, the stress imposed on our agricultural system and economy by farmland loss is as much a symptom of the larger problem than it is the problem itself. I will also point out that none of the various political or economic systems that exist in the world today has successfully controlled or even managed population growth–including China, which remains the only one I know that has actively tried to do so.
If I had to give you a simple analogy for what I’m trying to say about the perspectives debated in the recent Small Farmer’s Journal article, I would say the following. It’s fine to conduct a back-seat conversation on a complex issue like farmland loss as long as, in doing so, you don’t get so distracted by the details that you forget to hit the brakes before the car plunges over the cliff. I believe there is a much more basic and fundamental concern that we need to face before we can hope to solve the subsequent problem of farmland loss—one that challenges our fundamental ability to feed ourselves regardless of how many acres of farmland we have to protect. If we can’t find the courage or consensus to address the core issue of overpopulation, all the others may eventually become moot. What’s good fodder for discussion will not fill a starving belly.
For what it’s worth, I will say that I simply believe that we humans, like every other species that has become extinct before us, will have to face our own extinction. Ask any Astronomer—if we don’t do it to ourselves, the sun will eventually do it for us. After all, no matter how you choose to deal with it, death is an unavoidable aspect of life itself. We may have a greater intellect than any other species, but that alone is no guarantee that we can overcome the most fundamental realities of life itself. If these thoughts frighten you, don’t worry. Regardless of how it all plays out, the end isn’t likely to come until after we are long gone. It may not be a happy or optimistic ending to this post, but it may be the most realistic I can give you. As one who has worked as a farmer, I understand the need to face reality on its own terms, not on mine.