How to Protect Our Country's Farmland
The excellent op-ed piece published recently in the New York Times by Lindsey Lusher Shute and Benjamin Shute reminds us that we not only need to protect farmland, but also to make sure that its price doesn’t rise beyond what farming can pay for.
In the early 2000s it was already the case that conserved land in Massachusetts was selling for the same price that it would if it wasn't conserved, and that is also the case here in southeastern Vermont. The reason is, as the op-ed piece says, that the land is not being bought for housing subdivisions or commercial development, but rather by people with a fair bit of money who want an historic property in the country. This, as the Shutes suggest, pushes the cost of land beyond the level where it could be paid for by farming. It also creates another problem: if a conservation easement doesn't lower the market value of land, it won't reduce the property taxes, which means that a chief incentive for people to conserve their land is being lost.
Fortunately, as the Shutes tell us, some landowners are working with land trusts to place restrictions on their land such that the owner must actively farm. This is a good idea in principle, since it should weed out non-farmers from the pool of people looking to buy these farms and, by lowering the price, should also restore the tax incentive for people to conserve land. In practice the idea may prove tricky. Many, maybe most, farm families earn most of their income off the farm, so the half-your-income-from-farming criteria is likely to eliminate many farmers that we would like to help. It might be better to establish other criteria for what counts as actively farming and for who should be eligible to buy protected land from a land trust.
Over the last 30 years, land trusts have done an enormous amount of good by holding conservation easements on farmland and thereby protecting it from development. In some cases these easements have been donated and in other cases they have been purchased. The downside of this model of conservation is that it is voluntary and expensive. It is unlikely that the development rights on all of the farmland that needs to be protected will be willingly donated or that there will be money to purchase it all. The reason why this strategy has been pursued is that it has allowed much good to be done where a regulatory approach would probably have been rejected by the legislature and local planning commissions. But while land trusts do what they can right now to keep the tide of development back from particular locations, they must not distract us from the fight for a more comprehensive solution which, though politically difficult, is also much cheaper: land use regulation.
Good agricultural land, like clean air and water, is something that humanity depends on for its very existence. For that reason it ought to be protected and its use ought to be regulated. At present, we look at the soil as an object that can be treated by its owner in any way he or she chooses. The result has been that within our own lifetimes the US has lost more than half its topsoil due to bad farming practices and development. It's time that we look at the soil in the light of a public trust – something to which individuals might have private use rights, but which is so strongly affected with the public interest that it be subject to regulation for the purpose of protecting it and ensuring that its functions are fulfilled. Both the rationale and the mechanisms for doing this are well established in American law –we lack only the political will and the clear understanding that this is necessary.
While upon first consideration it seems unthinkable that a city like New York might protect all the farmland necessary to its own food security, it is worth remembering that approximately the same amount of land went into creating the Adirondack Park and other areas that are protected for the sake of the city’s water supply.
The statutory protection of farmland would keep it from being destroyed, but it wouldn't address the chief concern that the Shutes raise in their article: that the purchase of farms by people with non-farming incomes will push the price of farmland beyond what farmers can pay. Ensuring access to farmland for willing farmers requires additional legislation, which could range from tax programs, such as Vermont's Current Use, which taxes land that is actively farmed at a lower rate, thus encouraging non-farming landowners to lease their land to farmers, to rules such as those that exist in Norway, requiring the purchasers of farms to actively farm them – which naturally limits the pool of interested buyers and depresses the market value of farms. None of this on its own will protect the existence of small farmers – that requires a restructuring of our food system and economy – but at least it will protect the land and make sure that small farmers have access to it as we build a food system that supports them.