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Farm Aid

Why the demise of the American farm is more important than you know.

Why the demise of the American farm is more important than you know

When Frank Bascombe, the Everyman-Realtor hero of Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land, muses on the challenges facing his little beach town on the Jersey Shore, it seems like Ford has the whole American republic in mind. "Growth, smart or even stupid, is the perceived problem here. ... There was no space to grow out to, so my business model pointed to in-fill and retrench."Most reviewers took Frank's zoning-and-realty talk (and there's a whole lot of it in the book's more than 500 pages) as existential metaphor-charting the sublets, high-rises, and home lots of the human soul. That's not surprising-real estate can be a numbing subject for liberal-arts majors-but it's a shame.Growth, smart or stupid, is a perennial American problem, and Frank's discussion of "in-fill" and "retrench" versus "grow-out" has a lot in common with the latest progressive land-development model, called, as it happens, smart growth.Smart growth has roots in the European rural village model, where housing and shops get clustered in the town center, so the surrounding outskirts can stay open for farmland ("in-fill" rather than "grow-out"). It's been slow to catch on in this country. After all, our national identity was forged on the kind of individualism that requires endless land-if you don't like it on this patch of acres here, then you just pull up stakes and head farther west. The kind of land planning that Europeans have taken for granted for centuries, where the prerogative of the community trumps that of the individual, rubs us the wrong way. We've always had enough land to afford to do whatever the hell we want with it.That era is long over, of course; we're facing the prospect of a coast-to-coast exurb. And, confronted with the reality of strip and sprawl, of so many of our paradises paved over for parking lots, we've been wising up-but it may be too little, too late. This is especially true for our working land: New York State, for example, loses ten times more farmland to development than it protects, annually. Understandably, most farmers find it hard to resist the instant riches that come with selling out to developers, in no small part because the practical incentives to continue farming are so meager these days. (I grew up in western Massachusetts dairy country, where, in the last decade or so, many farmers have become real-estate paper millionaires, but still can't afford health insurance.)\n\n\n
We're only just beginning to have a place for agriculture in our conservation ethic.
We're only just beginning to have a place for agriculture in our conservation ethic. The Europeans have a bumper sticker that says, "Eat Your View"-in other words, if you want to preserve the open spaces around you, buy local food. (With the added benefit that fewer food miles will result in fewer emissions.) While the local and sustainable agriculture movement is catching on among consumers in this country, our farmland is disappearing even faster.Keeping your Brussels sprouts local is a great start, but the battle for the future of sustainable local agriculture will be won or lost at the level of land policy. The problem is that the nuts and bolts of zoning, agricultural easements, and development transfers aren't sexy enough to capture the mainstream imagination in the same way as organic food, green building, or carbon footprints. Plus, the green movement and farmers aren't traditionally the coziest of bedfellows-farmers, especially at the bigger operations, have often been poor stewards of the land while environmentalists have been slow to value farmers' potential as partners in preservation-so the issue has never been given the urgency of parkland conservation. The public interest in private land seems less immediate. The best new land-preservation programs, though, make the public-private distinction somewhat academic. In one model that is in use across the country, a cash-strapped farmer can sell off the development rights to his or her land-he or she gets a welcome monetary infusion, but in return, the land is deeded for agricultural use only, a condition that extends in perpetuity even if the land changes hands or is sold. The payment, while helping the farmer survive, ensures a public good (the land stays open and productive).Unfortunately, most such programs are drastically underfunded, and the majority of farms that apply for them get turned down. The Bush administration's proposed Farm Bill-a surprisingly reform-minded and progressive piece of legislation-has earmarked a slight increase for these farmland conservation programs. Whether that provision survives the rounds of Congressional budget cuts (especially once the bill gets fatted with pork) remains to be seen. So far, most of these agricultural land trusts are nonprofits, and have saved farmland using mostly private funds. But they need more muscle and money. After all, if we begin to think of agricultural preservation as an extension of green responsibility-and, in this case, a little would go a long way-our children might be able to eat our view, too.Author portraits by RACHEL SALOMON Maloney has written for Slate and The New York Times. He is working on a book about wine in America.

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