Competing for America’s farmland
Many leaders in urban communities are setting goals to manage growth and support sustainable economies. So, when Ellington, Conn., First Selectman Dennis Milanovich discusses his hopes for the future of his town, talk centers around various ventures, including a farm-to-school meals program, a farmers’ market at the recreational fields and networking to match local farmers with end users.
Ellington has seen unprecedented residential growth spurred by the sale of farmland to developers. And while conservation groups traditionally point to preserving farms to maintain the local character of their towns, Milanovich’s concerns are primarily economic. Ellington spends 70 cents of every tax dollar on its educational budget. “If it takes one acre to feed one cow for one year, weigh that against the cost for one acre with one house with two children, which costs the town $16,000 for their education,” he says.
Nationwide Cost of Community Services studies consistently show that farmland requires far less in-town service costs than the taxes it generates.
Comparatively, the taxes garnered from residential development rarely cover community services costs. Hence, more towns are teaming up with conservation groups to halt the sale of existing farmland.
In 19 states Purchasing of Development Rights (PDR) programs have started to help communities create a viable option to selling their property to developers. PDRs can vary but basically allow towns to buy farmland development rights with state money that farmers can use ideally to enhance their operations. The farmer continues to own the land and pay taxes on it, but a deed restriction is placed on the land to limit its use to agricultural purposes.
PDRs, however, are only one of several tools in the toolbox, says Woodstock, Conn., Town Planner John Guszkowski, whose town has about 800 acres protected under PDRs. Guszkowski says PDRs alone are not always popular because they rely on the farmer’s willingness to trade the future lucrative development rights of their property for pennies on the dollar. A farmer also must have a true commitment to keeping his land in agricultural use and a good family structure that will provide that land with farmers.
Many towns look to zoning measures to protect farmland. They are revising subdivision regulations to preserve more land, creating ordinances for tax abatements for dairies and orchards, and writing grants to leverage state funds for agricultural uses.
The plummeting profitability of farming, in general, also threatens family farms. According to the 2000 U.S. census, the average age of a U.S. farmer is 55 years, and with fewer young people stepping in to take their place, town leaders are beginning to recognize that farmers are in nearly as great a risk of extinction as the land they cultivate. Thus, any farmland preservation measure needs to address the economic viability of local farms.
Some towns and states seem to be getting that. In Brant, N.Y., town officials sponsored two agri-business planning seminars to teach farmers and agricultural landowners about grant opportunities and to assist them with business planning strategies. Additionally, with the assistance of Honesdale, Pa.-based Shepstone Management, a planning and research firm that specializes in agricultural economic development, the town created three model agri-business plans for a winery, a produce auction and an agri-entertainment/retail establishment. In Massachusetts, the state’s Farm Viability Program is a PDR program that also offers farmers technical assistance and the development of business plans in exchange for a deed restriction limiting the use of their land to agricultural purposes for five to 10 years.
“I think just the fact that chief elected officials are starting to talk [about investing in their town’s farming operations] is a big deal,” Guszkowski says. “But it hasn’t gotten far beyond that. It’s a slow process.”
Fiscal, environmental and community character purposes aside, investing in farms is also one way to secure elusive and coveted green space. And that, Milanovich says, is what makes the investment well worth the effort.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.