Homegrown Homeland Security

Posted by .

While sitting in a western Wisconsin high school auditorium listening to farmers and other rural residents discussing urban sprawl the other evening, I was struck by an epiphany of sorts: the argument for saving farmland near our cities and suburbs has evolved beyond the “let’s save our pretty viewscapes” phase. Protecting prime farmland from the parking lot and the subdivision has become a matter of basic food security and sustainable economic development.

That thought came while listening to Al Singer explain why Minnesota’s Dakota County has put so much effort into protecting farmland over the past eight years or so. He was part of a panel of experts who were in the Trempealeau County community of Osseo for a public discussion called, “Land Use: The Balance of Agriculture and Rural Living.” The event was part of Key Ingredients: America by Food, a traveling Smithsonian exhibition that’s temporarily parked at the Osseo high school.

Singer oversees Dakota County’s Farmland and Natural Areas Program, a nationally recognized effort to preserve farmed acres on the southern edge of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area. It’s an important effort: fields with 14-feet of topsoil are not unheard of in this area and some serious farming still takes place here. In 2003, residents of Dakota County voted to tax themselves in order to raise money for purchasing development rights from farmers and other landowners in the community. Thus far, roughly 6,000 Dakota County acres have been protected from development through this voluntary program.

In a region where the Mississippi and Vermillion rivers have a major presence, residents are able to see that planting concrete right up to a streambank can have major environmental repercussions in the immediate area, as well as downstream. So the major driver for getting people to approve the land preservation program was its ability to protect vulnerable watersheds.

But then Singer went on to explain that Dakota County’s ability to protect its approximately 1,100 farms also makes it competitive regionally as a source of local food. As energy prices continue upward, metro areas are slowly beginning to realize that shipping in tomatoes from Florida and beef from Colorado year-round is not sustainable. That deep topsoil in Dakota County could be the source of a whole lot more locally produced food.

“We have land that’s within an hour or half-an-hour of three million people,” said Singer. “We are creating a structure where we can provide that local food. We are setting ourselves up to do that.”

Protecting farmland with permanent easements provides the basis for local food production, which has the potential to be a key economic engine. Preserving this land isn’t about creating a non revenue-producing museum piece that people can state at. On the contrary, the community is sending an important message to working farmers that agriculture is here to stay. It also makes it clear to all the support service providers needed by farmers—processors, input suppliers, repair shops, implement dealers—that ag is in it for the long haul as far as the local economy goes.

And protecting farmland with such tools as easements also makes that real estate more accessible to the next generation of farmers, since it’s no longer as vulnerable to the inflated land values that potential non-farm development imposes. In other words, protection of farmland, often derided by developers as anti-business, can actually be a key economic development tool. Strangely, lowering the value of individual parcels of land can help make a community’s overall fiscal health more vibrant in the long haul.

That’s an important message to get across to communities that still aren’t sure that protecting farmland makes good economic sense. Stan Gruszynski, the Wisconsin state director of Rural Development for USDA, made the point at the Osseo meeting that in some poorer counties that are desperate for jobs, “clean water protection” may not be a big motivator for protecting farmland. Large developments such as ethanol plants, mining facilities and factory farms can promise jobs right away, opening doors in the community. Those jobs may eventually not pan out, or they may end up paying too little to be worth the problems they bring to the community, but people tend to forget such things when the “next big thing” is proposed in the neighborhood.

Gruszynski said that’s why in recent years Rural Development has used Value-Added Producer Grants and other tools to fund initiatives that keep more food processed, marketed and consumed locally. In fact, before the meeting I had spent time on a Treampealeau County  farm that was benefiting from such efforts. The LSP Farm Beginnings graduates who own and operate this operation are producing meat for local markets. One of their markets, a local hospital, was made available to them through the Producers & Buyers Co-op, which Gruszynski’s agency helped launch. The Co-op links local, sustainable farms with institutional buyers in a 12-county area of  west-central Wisconsin.

Creating a positive environment for farm-based entrepreneurship to flourish is a way of bringing the entire community in on creating a better future. If you’re that young farm couple, it’s a place to sell your product without being at the mercy of large multi-nationals. If you’re a local processor, banker or elevator operator, that farmer is a customer. And if you’re an eater, it’s a way of eating healthier and keeping your money close to home. Protecting farmland and open space because “it’s the right thing to do” is nice, but nothing gets things done like self-interest.

But that doesn’t mean all that self-interest has to come at the cost of what’s good for the community as a whole. As Gruszynski pointed out, if a public dialogue takes place amongst residents, a “collective vision to determine what you want the land to look like in the future” can be created.

Such discussions don’t always come easy. In a community where one business or one mode of economic development dominates, people tend not to have the kind of dialogue that creates a collective vision. That vision has already been imposed upon them by the biggest guy on the block. As ag economist John Ikerd once told me: “If you want to sit around and wait, someone else will come fine a use for your resources. But if you look at potential alternatives…then you may come up with a different answer.”

But once that resource is paved over, the choice of community-based answers dwindles quickly.




One Response to “Homegrown Homeland Security”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)