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Farmonomics: It’s All About the Land

SOURCE: AP/Damian Dovarganes

Edgar Jaime checks organic red tomatoes at his family's Jaime Farms in City of Industry, CA. Keeping local farms going means protecting the land they're on.

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More and more, locally grown is becoming the new health food. Farmers’ markets are proliferating in formerly fresh-produceless markets. Fruit and vegetable bins in mass market stores—not just at a Whole Foods—boast of supplying local produce. Dining halls on most college campuses now offer farm fresh nights, with enticing work on organic farm, or WOOF posters hanging on nearby walls. Even my urban synagogue just started participating in a community supported agriculture program, with members buying shares of this year’s harvest from local farms and receiving fresh weekly produce from local farmers in return—and we are a little late to the game.

Beyond the basic appeal of good fresh vegetables at reasonable prices, the growing penchant for locally grown food reflects the convergence of a variety of forces. High energy costs drive up transportation costs and put long-distance delivery and other fossil fuel-dependent conventional agriculture at less of an advantage. Climate-change consciousness seems to have motivated millions of Americans to take a hundred small steps toward reducing their individual carbon footprints. And effective spokespeople, such as restaurateurs Dan and David Barber, who feature items from their family’s Blue Hill Farm in their restaurant of the same name, have cropped up around the county to make the case for the benefits of food from nearby.

Of course, locally grown food does not necessarily come from family farms, as larger corporate farming can be “local” in some areas. And many small family farms are far from organic, which is also being seen as a healthier choice because organic farming practices are designed to reduce pollution, conserve water and soil, and be pesticide and growth hormone free. But family farms remain predominantly a source of local produce, and a growing number are turning organic as well as that market expands.

This new inclination toward local food also reflects an American fondness for our image as a country founded by a free yeomanry of citizen farmers.[1] Little wonder that every time conservatives want to attack the estate tax, they haul out family farmers as the supposed beneficiaries of eliminating it (disingenuously, of course, as they fail to produce any family farmer who ever lost a farm due to the estate tax).

But what is contributing heavily to the loss of tens of thousands of family farms are ever present and shifting land development pressures. Put simply: no affordable farmland, no small farms. The economics of land development respond to the demand for alternative uses. In many areas of the country close to urban and suburban communities, profit per acre from expanded real estate development is far higher than from small-scale local farming.

Today’s recession may temporarily ease such pressures, but over the long haul we can expect more single-family subdivisions to lead to plowed under fields. Consequently, those who want to save the remaining over 2 million family farms (down from 6 million farms in 1940, but still accounting for 98 percent of all farms in the United States) need to do more than just shop at a farmer stand or join a community supported agriculture program—although both are sensible assists.

One small nonprofit, Equity Trust, has blazed a path that takes aim at the heart of the market mismatch: If alternative uses for farmland produce high property values when compared to farming, then create a way today to buy the farmers’ right to change uses in the future. Over the past decade, Equity Trust has helped save at least a dozen family farms by buying agricultural easements.

Agricultural easements are similar to other conservation easements. They’re like an easement for a telecommunications company to use my land for an antenna, in which the landowner continues to own the land but grants over to another party a limitation on the land owned. The agricultural landowner sells to a qualified land protection organization the right to enforce restrictions against alternative use of the land.

Such easements are priced at the difference between what the market would value the farmland if put up for sale and the value of the land if maintained in perpetuity as farmland. More precisely, Equity Trust assists local supporters of sustainable family farming often to be the buyers of such farmland easements, using model agreements worked out over the past decade.

One notable example is Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, NY, which is 225 acres of farm and conservation land that is home to one of the earliest CSAs in the Hudson Valley. As one of the country’s largest community supported, biodynamic farms, Roxbury provides fresh produce and meat to 1,050 local families. By partnering with Equity Trust, the Columbia Land Conservancy, and the Open Space Institute, Roxbury has ensured that its acres will be protected in perpetuity as farmland, available for lease at agricultural (not market) value to growers.

This approach respects the market signals—which might value the land more highly for commercial uses than farming—but then turns them around for preservation by compensating the farmer (or other landowner) today to avoid the temptation for them to sell later during a period of financial hardship. In addition, if these agreements are structured correctly they can help capitalize small farmers through equity rather than putting them at risk of more debt.

Market purists might howl that perpetual farming easements could make the land impervious to changes in use. Someday, they would argue, overall societal benefit might be higher if farmland were instead allowed to be sold off, plowed under, and turned into a strip mall—at least where benefit is measured by what a buyer would pay at any given time for the right to develop it.

But in any market system, one of the rights of ownership is the right to NOT sell. No one criticizes the art lover who prefers to hold on to her Cezanne rather than yield to an astronomical offer. The Equity Trust and other land conservation groups—from the Aspen Valley Land Trust to the Maui Coastal Land Trust*—are facilitating a market for farming lovers who believe they are better stewards of the development rights than the vagaries of local land sprawl expanding ever farther from a city.

Nor do such actions to preserve family farms exist in a vacuum. Higher gas costs, along with other high transportation costs, are setting in motion a reurbanization of many areas. Additional policies to reduce needless sprawl can incentive the reuse of the already built environment and ease pressures to convert farmland to built land.

No one expects us to return to an era 70 years ago when America enjoyed over 6 million family farms and farm employment was over 20 times greater than today proportionate to population. But the growing ranks of food lovers and home cookers flocking to buy local need to understand that it is all about the land. Sowing the seeds of the right approach to farmland preservation today will enable more of us to reap the bounty of locally grown produce long into the future.

[1] See Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 1992), p. 74.

* In addition, there are over 100 community land trust organizations in the United States dedicated to providing permanently affordable home ownership.

David M. Abromowitz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress focusing on housing policy and related federal and state programs and issues. He is a board member of the Equity Trust organization.

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