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Farmland Conservation’s East Coast Pioneers

Their proven approaches now spreading across the nation

August 20, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Last April, Joe Pitts (left) and Jim Gerlach, congressmen from Pennsylvania, a leader in farmland preservation, discussed their proposals for federal support of such programs at a gathering in Chester County.

Second of three parts

The enduring importance of farming to the nation’s economy is finally starting to turn heads across the country. Although the nation’s 2.1 million farms account for more than $1 trillion in economic activity, until recently many people thought only casually about the supply of good land that farming requires. With 938 million acres, nearly half the country, devoted to farm and ranch land, even most policymakers viewed the nation’s supply as, if not inexhaustible, certainly plentiful enough to make any concern about running out seem foolish.

The more dire estimates put the annual loss of farmland—mostly through suburban development and soil erosion—at around 1 million acres annually. At that rate it would take 900 years for all of America’s farmland to disappear.

But the rush of land development at the urban edge—particularly the sheer speed with which capital and technology can transform entire communities by turning open spaces into acres of parking lots—is stirring new discussion. In many states, farms have emerged in the public mind as critical pieces of the regional economy, job and wealth producers, and conservators of a quality of life that runaway development is now challenging. Every day, more of the public is getting involved in preserving that land, and the vital economy it supports.

Farmland conservation is becoming a phenomenon in the United States—from coast to coast. From Maryland and New Jersey in the East, to Oregon and California in the West, and in many places in between, a variety of programs, policies, ordinances, and economic development plans are not only preserving America’s most romanticized way of life, they are also protecting the environment, defending longstanding communities from sprawl, and strengthening one of the most crucial parts of the nation’s economy.

Buying and Transferring
The gold standard in farmland conservation in the United States, according to authorities, includes Maryland’s Montgomery, Howard, and Carroll Counties, and Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. Each established formidable farmland conservation programs that have popularized relatively new concepts that many more Americans may soon be hearing about: purchase of development rights, transfer of development rights, rigorous agricultural zoning, and farm profitability programs.

Carroll County, for example, has permanently secured more than 44,000 acres of farmland since 1979 by purchasing farmers’ development rights—paying growers the difference between the value of their land as farms and its value as commercial property. The county pioneered an approach that today typically combines money from a new, dedicated, local property tax with state, federal, and foundation funds to purchase the rights.

The American Farmland Trust now counts 60 to 70 similar local farmland preservation programs in 16 states. As of January 2005, such programs collectively spent $761.7 million to preserve 241,181 acres of farmland.

To farmland preservation advocates, so called “PDR” programs are like Math 101—a basic first step. Since Carroll launched its program, however, other more sophisticated approaches have evolved. They may be more challenging to enact, but they also offer added benefits, including directing new development to areas that a community specifically targets for growth, guaranteeing that new development within rural areas does not interfere with farming, and helping farmers build the profitability of their businesses.

The classic example of directing development to areas targeted for growth is in Montgomery County, just north of Washington, D.C. The county has preserved more than 41,000 acres through an ingenious mechanism that sells the development rights of farmers in designated “agricultural protection zones” to developers, who then may build residential or commercial projects in other “growth zones,” far from those farms, that the county wants to see become more densely developed.

Montgomery’s program is the most successful of roughly 50 similar programs, known as “transfer of development rights” projects. An added bonus that makes “TDR” popular with residents, if less so with developers, is that it typically does not require a property tax increase; developers, not tax payers, pay the freight. In Montgomery, TDR has worked splendidly, preserving the scenic rural beauty of a county located in one of the nation’s most densely populated metropolitan regions.

Zone Defense, Tourism Opportunities
Farmers are generally known as a cautious bunch. That is why so many of them initially reject PDR or TDR programs out of hand. One thing that often gets them to reconsider their opinion of these government-based preservation programs, however, is the difficulties suburbanization’s charms—heavier traffic, higher taxes, ever more complaints about odors and the sounds of midnight harvesting—present to their operations.

Some agricultural counties have responded by establishing and rigorously enforcing agricultural zoning laws. Typically, if a farmer wanted to sell of a few acres of his land to a developer intent on building a small subdivision, few of his fellow growers saw much harm in it. But, with experience as the teacher, many local governments are now establishing minimum lot sizes for homes—often 20 acres—that sharply limit the number of neighbors who can clog up country roads, clamor for more expensive municipal services, or complain about the realities that shatter their romantic notions about life in the farm belt.

Recently, a township in Lancaster County sharply upped the ante; it established a standard of one house for every 50 acres in its agricultural zone. Farmers themselves were the most vocal constituency in pushing the new ordinance through.

Another, more ominous threat to farmers is the global commodity treadmill that often wears down even the best growers by paying beans for blue-ribbon crops, eventually forcing them out of business. That has prompted both state and county officials to redirect economic development programs usually targeted for more traditional business toward farms.

These programs help growers develop farmers markets and other local food sales and distribution programs. The programs also can help growers develop unique, new products that they can produce on their own homestead and sell onsite or over the Internet to national or global markets. Although these activities are far outside the realm of a typical farmer, training and other support can help them shift from commodity farming to “niche” markets, often greatly increasing their profitability.

Farmers and their neighbors are also embracing another relatively new economic model: farmland as an essential scenic amenity that complements recreation, tourism, and the quality of life. Lancaster County’s $800 million-a-year farm economy, one of the nation’s largest, is buoyed by a farmland preservation program that permanently set aside over 50,000 acres solely for agriculture. And all of that gorgeous, preserved land can also attract lots of local tourism dollars. Lancaster’s bucolic scenery draws millions of visitors who annually spend more than $1 billion.

Farmers can and often do cash in on tourism with everything from hayrides and petting farms to roadside stands and bed and breakfasts.

San Diego Gets It
All of this East Coast innovation is rubbing off elsewhere, even as far west as San Diego County, which is about the size of Connecticut and which is rarely thought by many of its residents as an agricultural area.

Roughly four in 10 of San Diego County’s 2.93 million residents live in San Diego proper. Agriculture dominates much of the rest of the land and is distant enough from the metropolis that most residents don’t even know that San Diego County has 5,255 farms—the third-largest number of any county in the U. S. The farms earn an average of $5,612 per acre, and contribute $4.7 billion in overall economic activity, according to the California Department of Agriculture.

So farmland preservationists there are working to update the county’s general plan, aiming to prompts the gush of new residents headed their way to settle within towns and cities rather than in the countryside. That would leave more room for the county’s expanding and profitable agriculture industry, which has grown 40 percent in a decade and is now the nation’s 10th-largest county farm economy.

In May 2005, according to Christine Carta, a San Diego County environmental planner, elected leaders hired American Farmland Trust to help design the San Diego County Farming Program Plan to “promote viable farming in this region,” assisted by the county farm bureau.

“One of the things we’re looking at is the potential to establish a purchase of development rights program,” said Ms. Carta. “We have the support of the board of supervisors, who adopted a policy in support of agriculture. It has also been critical to have the farm bureau working with us. They see the benefit of finding common ground.”

Last fall, the county held a series of public outreach meetings to hear farmers’ and residents’ concerns for the future of farming in San Diego County, a vital step toward proposing a land conservation plan. “Most people,” observed Ms. Carta, “don’t realize the significance of farming to the economy of San Diego County. It’s our fifth-largest industry.”

“The county wants to move its future density from the backcountry to town centers,” added Eric Larson of the local farm bureau. “With that transfer of population to town centers, we recognize a potential tremendous loss in equity in the value of property to farmers, which could be financially disabling to them. So we came forward with a proposal for a purchase of development rights program. If a farmer is given the opportunity to sell his development rights, he remains whole. That’s why we support it.”

This is Part two of a three-part series on farmland preservation programs across America. To read the rest of the series, please click on the page numbers at the top of this article

Keith Schneider is the editor and director of new program development at the Michigan Land Use Institute. A full version of this article was published in the Summer 2006 issue of Planning Commissioners Journal (www.plannersweb.com) and is available for order or download at www.plannersweb.com/ag.html. Reach Keith at keith@mlui.org.

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