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Wednesday, 21 June 2006 00:00

Saving farms is not about nostalgia

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If you think taking tangible steps to protect farmland is more about nostalgia than anything else, guess again. As change continues at its rapidly accelerating pace, having protected private land on which to grow crops could become an important part of the American economy.

In last week’s Smoky Mountain News, we took a long look at the challenges facing farmers who want to keep their land. Any landowner in the mountains with more than 100 acres could become a millionaire tomorrow simply by selling their land to speculators or developers. It’s reality, and it’s a waste of time to demonize the developers with the money or the property owners for selling off. Finding a way to become secure in retirement — especially in a country that does a poor job of providing for its elderly — is a worry for every American.

All we can do is try and stem the loss of farmland in our communities. The General Assembly is discussing a bill called Land For Tomorrow that would allow the state’s citizens to vote on whether to set aside $1 billion for conservation, from farmland to new state parks. If passed, it would provide a way for farmers who have depended on their land for a retirement fund to have the best of both worlds. They would be paid for putting their land in a conservation easement,permanently protecting it from development but allowing them and future generations to keep farming. The money, while substantially less that what developers would offer, would be enough to provide for retirement.

Unfortunately, prospects for the bill in this session aren’t good. Supporters wanted a referendum on the November ballot, but support for a vote this year is waning. Some lawmakers want a school construction vote in November. Others support a billion dollar water and sewer vote, which is a sickening irony because the water and sewer infrastructure are often just what causes the loss of farm and forest lands.

Those who support the Land for Tomorrow measure, for the most part, are arguing that it is a defense against the continued onslaught of development that is washing over the Tar Heel state. Others say protecting farmland and keeping crops in the ground is a worthwhile endeavor because it conserves a fundamental part of our American heritage.

Dig a little deeper, though, and a much more pragmatic reason for supporting measures like Land for Tomorrow emerges: as the world’s supply of cheap energy disappears, we will be forced to grow more of our own food. We’ll need the land.

A host of studies are being published that point out this emerging dilemma. Sometime in the next decade or so, the world will reach peak oil production. As the emerging economies of India and China and other Asian countries begin competing for this limited supply with the U.S. and Europe, energy prices will go up. We’re seeing that now. Which means that heavily processed food we rely upon — and whose growth requires mechanization, fertilizers and a lot of energy — will skyrocket in price.

At the same time, it is predicted that the U.S. is on the way to becoming a net food importer. Craig Infanger, a University of Kentucky College of Agriculture economist, believes the world’s the U.S. — now the world’s largest food exporter — will also become the world’s largest importer.

“It seems clear to me that unless the value of U.S. agricultural exports were to somehow set new records every year, the United States is likely to become the worlds largest food importer in 2006,” Infanger said in a January 2005 article.

The only way to reverse this trend is to eat lower on the food chain. That doesn’t mean becoming vegetarians or anything nearly so radical. It means, for those of us over 40, simply going back to how many of us ate as children and young adults. Even up to the 1970s we ate fruits and vegetables in season because nearly all of our food was grown in the U.S., much of it in the region in which we lived. That meant fewer packaging, processing and transportation costs. It also meant fresher, healthier and better-tasting food.

The emerging success of farmers’ markets here in Western North Carolina shows that many people want to support local growers. Sure it’s easy to go to the supermarket, and we will always do so. But direct farmer to consumer markets are growing. One study estimates that the 1,755 farmer markets in the U.S. increased to 3,100 by 2002. All told, that was still just 0.3 percent of food sales in the U.S. Raising that percentage to 5 or 10 percent will mean huge savings in energy needs, a healthier diet — and a greater need for farmland.

Easy access to cheap fossil fuels has led us to a situation where farm goods from all over the world are priced competitively. But that won’t last long. The sustainable, local economies of the future will depend on local farmland where small growers can produce many of the goods that will soon be too expensive to import. We need to find a way to save our local farmland, and the Land For Tomorrow bill is a good place to start.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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