Moving to the country? Keep green acres green.
Green acres is fast becoming the place to be in the pandemic, keeping it green is key to averting further crises.
Most of us have either read or heard the stories. Folks have been fleeing the cities. New York to San Francisco, Houston to Chicago, in the wake of COVID-19, at least anecdotally, there has been strong evidence that people are looking to live in less crowded communities.
Now it seems that the evidence is more than anecdotal. As reported in U.S. News, “Researchers at the Harris Poll – a firm of social scientists and strategists – conducted an online survey of 2,050 U.S. adults nationwide from April 25 to 27 that asked, among other coronavirus-related questions, whether they would consider moving to less-populated areas once the pandemic ended. Nearly 40% of U.S. adults living in urban areas indicated they would consider moving ‘out of populated areas and toward rural areas,’ compared to 29% of overall respondents.”
America the Beautiful. “O beautiful for spacious skies — for amber waves of grain — for purple mountains majesties — above the fruited plain.” This is the dream, right?
That dream, renewed by the struggles of lockdown, provides a great opportunity, but with the great gift of the open space still available in this country comes great responsibility.
Some of the folks looking to move to rural areas will be looking at farmland and ranchland.
As the farm economy struggles amidst trade wars, pandemic-related disruptions in transportation and processing, extreme weather, and with an aging farming population looking to retire, farmland becomes more vulnerable to poorly planned development.
A new study shows, between 2001 and 2016 alone, 11 million acres of the nation’s irreplaceable agricultural land was lost or fragmented, equal to all the land in the U.S used to produce fruits, vegetables and nuts in 2017. This same research reveals that it’s not just urban sprawl that is worrisome. A new class of land use, most recognized by large-lot subdivisions, houses on 20 acres or so – too small to be viable farms but situated in a way that breaks up larger tracks of farmland — and the seemingly bucolic housing clusters spread out along rural roads – is a bigger threat. Land developed in this patchwork way is 23 times more likely to lead to higher density development, eventually making it impossible for farmers to continue farming.
But the picture does not have to be bleak; flip it around, it can be hopeful.
Protecting farmland from development can be part of one’s purchase process. Stewarding the land for the long-term sustainability of the soil and the surrounding ecosystem services, and for improving environmental outcomes of farming on the land is not just the responsibility of the farmer, it can become the goal and charge of the new owner.
If you are buying land, look into putting an agricultural conservation easement on the property to protect it in perpetuity from further subdivision. If you are not going to take up farming, instead rent the land to a local farmer and collaborate with them on a plan that includes investment by you both for implementing conservation practices to build soil health, protect water resources and reduce impacts of the farming operation. Give your farmer the benefit of a long-term lease vs. a year-to-year agreement so that the investment pays off for you both, for a long time in the future. Leave the land better than you found it.
Make sure that you don’t contribute to the fragmentation of farmland when you choose to build your dream home. Talk to the local conservation organization and land trusts about what constitutes a responsible purchase and development plan. Find a knowledgeable conservation-oriented real estate agent who understands the local farming economy and farmland in general.
Why is this so important?
It’s not just about housing on farmland, it’s about the nation’s food security, rural economies, our ability to be resilient in the face of crises, pandemics, floods and fires, and climate-related challenges to food and fiber production.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have seen empty grocery shelves for the first time in their lives. We have come to realize how critically important farmers are to us, how we turn to them in crises, and how they innovate to meet demand. But they can’t do their job and we won’t have sufficient healthy food without farmland.
During the pandemic we have become increasingly reliant on local food, not just the wealthy few, but all of us. The farmland that often gets developed is the land on which local food is grown. Increasingly, local food and farms are in the path of development. Most of the fruits, nuts, veggies and dairy we consume come from farms on the urban edge — 55% of eggs and poultry, 68% of diary, 77% of vegetables and melons and 91% of fruits, tree nuts and berries.
Even as we rely more on farmers, we may not realize that the land they steward provides environmental services upon which we will depend more and more. Farmland provides protection from floods and fires in the same way that the built environment fuels the resultant disasters. It holds and recycles waters, provides a stop gap to a spreading fire. Certainly, we don’t wish this to be its purpose, but naturally it stands in the way of the worst impacts.
Dotted in and around farmland you will find woodlands, ponds and streams, prairie, grasslands, pollinator habitat. It provides a home for all kinds of wildlife.
And lest we forget about climate change. As we struggle to deal with our immediate peril from the virus, large swaths of the U.S. are getting hotter, crop growing zones are shifting, some areas are becoming wetter, some drier, pests are moving, weed pressure growing. If we protect our farmland and take care of it so that it is more resilient to these changes, we can build a national store, a natural infrastructure that can deliver both food and shelter.
It is about making responsible choices and educated purchases. It is about preserving the rural landscape that is your dream so that it does not become a distant memory. It is about actively becoming involved in the food system from which we all benefit – especially those who move onto the rural-suburban edge and into these large-lot subdivisions.