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The Last Crop: Tools to help communities protect their farms from population growth.

by: Joel B. Quick, 2010 for

The housing patterns in the US have changed dramatically in the past 60 years due to changes in transportation costs and agricultural production. Local governments often encourage more construction in hopes of increased tax revenues. However this often leads to taxes rising on agricultural land, which can force family farmers off the land and out of the community. In many cases, the increased taxes does not pay for the increased costs of infrastructure, police and schools. Case studies are presented of the use of five tools to stop this destruction: transfer of development rights (Montgomery County, MD), agricultural zoning (Lancaster County, PA), agricultural conservation easements (Marin County, CA), present use tax valuations (Buncome County, NC) and retroactive taxation for developing farmland (Oregon State).


The traditional residential pattern in the US from colonial times until the 1950's has been that of the town or city surrounded by farmland. In the South and parts of the West where agriculture was the major industry, towns were built near rivers as ports to accommodate the exportation of agricultural products. With the rise of the automobile in the US a new growth pattern began that had unfortunate consequences for our nation's food supply. People began moving out into the former farmland that surrounded cities and towns and building neighborhoods on the fields. This growth pattern has contributed to endangering the family farm and driving agricultural processes into larger and larger conglomerates which have the financial resources to grow, package and transport large volumes of food that is acceptably healthy, appealing, and has a long shelf life. Almost all the nation's food is being preprocessed in order to allow it to make the journey to us from far away.


The pattern of growth itself is quite interesting in that people who didn't want to be in crowded urban environments moved out to neighborhoods and then out further again. This pattern of movement is something of an indicator that many people don't really like to be crowded together; they don't like the traffic, the noise, the lights, and the congestion of urban life. Unfortunately, this movement out of urban centers was usually carried out in an unorganized manner and all of the traffic and congestion just got worse as people had to get into and out of urban centers each day. In city centers crime increased and the infrastructure fell apart without renewed investment. As the population grew people tried to spread out, and farmland was lost beneath sprawling development.


There are areas of our nation completely dedicated to growing crops or raising livestock for the nation, but they are often far from urban centers. Much of this agricultural land would produce little without large-scale irrigation projects. Unlike the family farms of the past, the agricultural companies that work these lands are also forced to use a wide variety of chemicals and practices to ensure that their crops are healthy and appealing once they are transported to cities. These processes create cycles of dependency on soil amendments, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and genetically modified seeds in order for crops to grow. Even some of these industrial-farming areas are threatened by what we call the last crop - a suburban or exurban neighborhood. The meat production industries are also heavily dependent on industrial chemicals and processes. Despite all of this, today industrial agriculture would significantly diminish in the US if it weren't being heavily subsidized by our tax a few billion tax dollars per year to allow us to out compete farmers globally.


Across our nation the fertile soils our nation once fed itself from are disappearing rapidly under house after house. The consumer movement toward organic farming and local food has done some to help the last remaining family farms stay afloat, but encroaching development is a threat to farmers almost everywhere. Family farms are sometimes able to survive through customer investment programs, farmers markets, and other ways of collecting the bulk of the profit from their farming. In order to retain family farms the model seems to be: a non-profit dedicated to promoting local farmers that can organize markets, good land to grow food on relatively close to urban centers, and a committed local government willing to pass policies to protect farming. This last element of the equation -a committed local government seems to be the hardest to find in the US.


The major reason that local governments are reluctant to protect their farms is that land is taxed based on its value. The value of a quarter of an acre with a three-bedroom house on it is much greater than the value of a quarter acre of broccoli. This is the central problem. A farm that is subdivided into lots can sell for millions of dollars, and the lots once filled with houses will bring in many millions more to the developers, and will bring in higher taxes to the local government. The farms near these houses often see their property taxes rise as well, given the possibility of subdivision and development. When this happens the tax burden can become overwhelming, and often farmers are "taxed off the land" because their income from food production can't meet the new tax value. As the land is turned to housing nearby cities are able to annex the area thus adding more taxable land to the base.


This economic incentive is why cities and counties across the US have been pushing for more growth and less food. Some might ask whether or not there will be enough food for the people living on the former farmland. Unfortunately, when it comes to growth, local and state governments across the US are seemingly unwilling frame their economics in this way. They all assume that someone else somewhere else will grow the food. I have found that very few local governments are even willing to do serious accounting for whether or not the built infrastructure is capable of handling the new growth. I have been to many local government meetings and have never heard a city council member ask if there are enough seats in schools and lanes on feeder roads, or if there is enough pressure in the water line. The modus operandi in the US seems to be build it, collect money, sort everything out - in other words it's a gamble.


The short-term economic gain is a long-term economic loss. Family farmers may not make a lot of money, but they do provide jobs, pay taxes, volunteer their time in the community, and produce goods. The houses built on a former farm may take up to a year to complete and then the jobs are gone. Developers of large projects tend to be located in major metropolitan areas and often leave town with the money as soon as the last house is sold. The local government will be able to bring in more taxes, but of course those taxes have to pay for schools, roads, water, sewage, police officers, fire departments, and city workers. In the end the bump in tax revenues may or may not balance the city's books. Where these houses now sit a factory once stood. It was an open-air factory and it produced food.


Some would say that a local government could easily pay for the infrastructure to accommodate a growing population with the increasing equity in everyone's home. This myth has been busted. In 2010 as house prices continue to decline in cities nationwide, and as more and more people are walking away from mortgages that are underwater - I hope that people can finally all agree that house prices don't go up forever. On the contrary reason would dictate that a house would actually decrease in value over time unless regularly renovated. In fact there are a number of cities in the Rustbelt where you can buy a house with a credit card. There are also dozens of states that are barely solvent because of the drop in property values. The gamble didn't pay off. They lost their farms and they lost the homeowner taxes too.


For all the state and local governments that furiously encouraged population growth, there are communities in the US that had the good sense and long-term vision to do what they could to preserve farming and a rural way of life. The actions taken by these communities are explored here. Given the fact that almost every growing city or county has faced this issue, the examples are sorted by policy method with a relevant historical example. Many communities have tried these approaches, and some have tried several of them at once.



Transfer of Development Rights

Montgomery County, MD

              Located in the sprawling Washington DC metropolitan area, Montgomery County, MD is still relatively undeveloped in relation to other counties in the area. Sweeping farmland covers the northwestern half of the county, while the southernmost portion is increasingly residential.[1] A series of county programs have been implemented to help farmers continue farming in Montgomery County.


              1969 marked the beginning of farmland preservation in Montgomery County when the County Council adopted a plan that outlined a system of  "wedges and corridors."[2] The county envisioned growth radiating out of the DC area in a series of corridors that surrounded major roads and transit options. In between these "corridors" would be wedges of open space and farmland.[3] This plan was accompanied with a down zoning of land in rural areas to one unit per 5 acres to prevent subdivisions from occurring.[4] Residential growth was little slowed by these efforts however.[5]


In October of 1980 the county created a massive agricultural preserve of over 93,000 acres. The county again down zoned to one unit per twenty-five acres within this preserve and set up a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program.[6] Under this program landowners within the agricultural preserve were able to sell "development rights" to people elsewhere in the county in exchange for an increase in the possible density.[7] People in the Agricultural Preserve can choose whether or not to participate in the TDR program, if they choose not to, then they can build only one unit per twenty-five acres, if they choose to participate then they can sell development rights based on the pre 1980 zoning of one unit per 5 acres.[8]


              This TDR program has proven to be a success. Development rights are sold based on what the market will bear, there has historically been a lack of receiving areas demanding the development rights.[9] There was a lawsuit filed due to a lack of receiving areas when the TDR program was first begun, but the original down zoning was declared to be appropriate regardless of the TDR program.[10]


Countywide zoning is necessary for carrying out this and other TDR programs.[11] The planning commission must approve of all TDR transactions, and each development is still subject to other regulations and the constraints of the site.[12] The county government must monitor the easements on the TDR program properties in the agricultural reserve perpetually.[13] One way this oversight is funded is through taxation of the TDR monies received by farmers.[14] These "Transfer Taxes" are invested in an interest bearing account.[15] The county also has a farmland easement program purchased by the county in part with these TDR transfer tax monies, giving these areas more protection.[16] There are private land trusts that are member funded, and a state agricultural land preservation foundation that also function to preserve land through deed restrictions and conservation easements.[17] As of 2009, the Montgomery County preserved over 71,000 acres of farmland. Of this number over 52,000 are in the TDR program.[18]


Agricultural Zoning

Lancaster County, PA

              Lancaster County is located in Southeastern Pennsylvania roughly 45 miles due west of Philadelphia. It is a longstanding traditional farming community and has been since Pre-Colonial times. Increasing residential development pressures have come to bear on agricultural practices over the past few decades. The county has a growth management program in place that specifies growth areas and rural areas giving each equal weight of import in their function.[19] As part of the growth management program, Lancaster County created several urban growth areas and a number of village growth areas where development is to be concentrated.[20] Roughly three-quarters of the county has soil that is considered prime for farming.[21]


              Agricultural zoning was first passed in Lancaster County in 1975, and has been one of the mainstays of Lancaster County's program to maintain farming as a way of life and preserver of quality of life for all of its citizens.[22] Well over half of the county is currently being used for farming or around 380,000 acres, and over 320,000 acres of land in the county are zoned for Agriculture.[23][24] Farming accounts for one-fifth of the jobs in Lancaster County either directly or indirectly, and there are over 3,000 farms in the county.[25] In addition to the County's zoning each township has adopted similar zoning that limits development of farmland to 1 house per 25 acres.[26]


It is not only the amount of land zoned, but is the specific way that the code language is written that makes Lancaster's agricultural zoning such a success.[27] The zoning declares that no more than 2 acres of any 25 acre parcel can be put to other uses besides agriculture, this means that of a much larger parcel no more than 8% can be developed, the rest must remain in agricultural production.[28] The definition of agricultural production is clearly spelled out in the zoning ordinance, as are the non-agricultural uses of the 8% that can be developed with limited subdivision and specific allowable building.[29] This is in contrast to the Montgomery County, MD down zoning that simply allows one house per 25 acres - a policy that has allowed large sprawling estates without any farming activity. While zoning is by no means a permanent decision in any jurisdiction, Lancaster County's most recent growth management section of the Comprehensive Plan indicates that more protection of agriculture by limiting development in rural areas is necessary - indicating that the trend of protecting farmland through zoning currently increasing.[30]


Agricultural Conservation Easements

Marin County, CA

In the 1970's Marin County, CA just north of San Francisco was faced with plans for a surge of development, but community members concerned about damage to farming and the unique ecosystem that Marin County holds halted this process.[31] One of the most unique and successful methods used to halt this development of pristine coastal area and ranchland was The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).[32] This land trust, formed in 1980, was the first trust in the US to be created specifically for preserving farmland, now there are hundreds of agricultural land trusts across the country.[33]


Conservation easements are private party transactions involving the landowner selling or donating the rights to develop the land to a local government body or land trust that will then be responsible for assuring that the agreement is upheld.[34] Agricultural conservation easements generally specify that all development not for agricultural purposes be disallowed on the land perpetually.[35] Often these development rights are sold to the Trust in order to both cover the taxes on the transfer and give the farmers and their families some incentive to permanently preserve the land.[36] This means that this particular method of preserving farmland, while the most permanent, is also the most expensive method. The agricultural conservation easements purchased by MALT were funded from two private grantors and a California state grant that provided the 17 million dollars to began the Trust's efforts.[37] Other monies have been added to this sum allowing MALT to permanently conserve over 41,000 acres as farmland in the county.[38]


As with other conservation easements, the landowners still hold the deed to the land, but MALT holds the development rights - an arrangement that is popular with farmers due to the lowered taxes that accompany the new restrictions on their land.[39] The easements are carefully written so that the Trust's duties are outlined, and Conservation Trusts are generally beholden to State regulations to monitor the land and guard the agreements original intent.[40] In the easement example offered by MALT on their website, the easement holder has the right to enter the property and inspect it, and the responsibility to pursue actions in order to stop any activity that is outside the scope of the agreement.[41] The only major weakness in a conservation easement is that it can be nullified by an eminent domain action, but both the Trust and the landowner would receive compensation in this instance.[42] Conservation easements are the strongest protection for farmland because they are private transactions that alter a properties deed and not policy decisions - and are thus not susceptible to changing political winds.


Present Use Tax Valuation

Buncombe County, NC

Buncombe County is located in the mountains of western North Carolina and is home to the region's largest metropolitan area, Asheville a city of roughly 80,000 people. The county is home to both historical resources such as the Biltmore Estate and natural resources such as large sections of Pisgah National Forest and the lands adjoining the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic byway through the southern Appalachian Mountains. The county is also home to a number of long wide valleys that have been farmed for many generations. Due to its cultural and natural richness, the county has in the last few decades found itself under development pressure from people building second homes and retirement communities.


From 2001 to 2008 with the nationwide housing bubble, a number of development interests from around the country began buying up farmland in the county in order to subdivide and build speculative housing on it. The county government was not averse to the housing being built in pursuit of a larger tax base, but it did listen to the concerns of farmers who found themselves subject to increasing taxes due to nearby development. The county chose to implement a variable taxation on land depending on its current use or "present use value", as it was enabled by the NC Legislature to do in 1986.[43] The difference between the taxes that are paid based on the lands use and what the market would bear for other uses is not waived but rather deferred.[44] This is an important distinction because if the land is sold or changes uses then the difference in deferred taxes would have to be paid at that time.[45]


The theory behind Present Use Valuation is that farmers consume fewer resources in their use of the land and therefore should have to pay fewer taxes.[46] In order for a farmer to be able to defer taxes using Present Use Valuation in the county they have to meet certain criteria.[47] The land must be used for Agricultural, Horticultural, or Forestland purposes, and the owner must prove an income of a certain amount from these specific uses or in the case of forestland they must provide a plan for revenue.[48] In addition to this tax break for farmers, Buncombe County also has a Farmland Preservation Program that can be entered into by farmers that have adjoining properties. People who voluntarily enter this program are beholden to limit all non-farm uses for 10 years.[49] The contract, however, can be broken at will by the participant.[50] Other states have enacted these kinds of "voluntary conservation districts" that are little more than a public record of a landowners intent not to develop the property.


Although this working lands tax break is the least protective of all the programs it is an important element, many farmers in Buncombe County have stated that without the variable taxation they would be unable to continue farming.[51] In fact, without a very hardworking non-profit organization promoting local food to consumers and business owners, farming in Buncombe County would probably be largely unrealistic given the pressures to subdivide and a lack of public policy to cease this practice.



Retroactive Taxation for Developing Farmland

State of Oregon

This policy is different from paying back a tax deferment on working lands; it is instead a tax penalty levied against anyone who moves land from an agricultural use to another use. This was passed in the State of Oregon in 1973 as Senate Bill 101. [52] The bill states that when an area zoned for farming, due to having been used for such a purpose, changes use then a penalty of 10 times the new value will be assessed that year.[53] This fine is levied whether the government determines that farming has ceased, or because the owner wants to use it for another purpose.[54] This law has discouraged the transition from farming uses to other uses in the subsequent years. The State of Oregon has passed some of the most comprehensive and progressive land-use regulations in the US, more on these regulations is available in the article Oregon and Washington: Protecting environments from unwanted growth a state level


Local Food Support Organizations


There are a number of non-profit organizations in the US that are dedicated to marketing and promoting local food and local farm products to consumers, restaurants, and grocers. Many of these programs sprang up in the last decade as offshoots of the local economic initiatives of the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Some of them also arose independently in cities with much of the same messaging - that supporting your local food producers is good for you and your community. These organizations ask businesses and individuals to make the effort to support locally produced healthier foods in order to maintain both the environment and general community cohesion.


With the rise of national and international grocery corporations and their contracts with large agribusinesses, more and more farmers have found that collective and creative marketing is necessary to survive. Collective marketing is generally done by an advocate organization as mentioned above, the organization collects small fees from each farmer to put together something like a local food guide that can then be distributed to a market.[55] Creative marketing methods such as direct marketing, farmers markets, farm to restaurant, farm to institution, farm tours, and other such arrangements are also often organized by local food organizations. Farmers have also found that pursuing local investment directly from their consumers is a means of staying afloat and compete with large agribusiness that often contracts with a packager or retailer.[56] Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one of the major modes of pursuing direct investment.[57] CSA's usually operate by subscription, where a farmer gets an upfront investment from customers who then get a regular return in the form of meats or crops over the course of the growing season at a better than market price.[58]


Having an non-profit organization to assist farmers and act as a liaison between farmers and community members is an important piece of the puzzle, but it must be accompanied by policies that encourage farming and keep farming close to urban centers to limit transportation costs.






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[1] Montgomery County Maryland Department of Economic Development. Agricultural Services Division. TDR Program Overview, 12/08/06. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010

[2] Excerpt From American Farmland Trust Montgomery County, Maryland TDR Program. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Montgomery County Maryland Department of Economic Development. Agricultural Services Division. TDR Program Overview, 12/08/06. Retrieved from on February, 23 2010

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid

[10] Montgomery County Maryland Department of Economic Development. Agricultural Services Division. Recommended Capital Budget/CIP, Agricultural Land Preservation Program. pages 30-1 to 30-2. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010

[11] Lawrence, Timothy J. Ohio State Fact Sheet. Community Development Department. Transfer of Development Rights CDFS-1264-98 Land Use Series. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010

[12] Excerpt From American Farmland Trust Montgomery County, Maryland TDR Program. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010

[13] Ibid.

[14] Montgomery County Maryland Department of Economic Development. Agricultural Services Division. Recommended Capital Budget/CIP, Agricultural Land Preservation Program. pages 30-1 to 30-2.Retrieved from on February, 23 2010

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Balance; The Growth Management Element of the Comprehensive Plan for Lancaster County, PA. page xv. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010

[20] Ibid. page 1-1

[21] Ibid. page 2-4

[22] Daniels, Tom. The Purchase of Development Rights, Agricultural Preservation and Other Land Use Policy Tools: The Pennsylvania Experience. page 4. State University of New York at Albany. Retrieved from on February 23, 2010. 

[23] Balance; The Growth Management Element of the Comprehensive Plan for Lancaster County, PA. pages 2-12 and 5-14. Retrieved from on February 24, 2010

[24] Daniels, Tom. Purchasing Development Rights: The Experience in Lancaster County, PA. page 1. Retrieved from on February 24, 2010

[25] Balance; The Growth Management Element of the Comprehensive Plan for Lancaster County, PA. pages 2-8 and 5-14. Retrieved from on February 24, 2010

[26] Bowers, Deborah. Achieving Sensible Agricultural Zoning to Protect PDR Investment

Presented at the Conference: Protecting Farmland at the Fringe: Do Regulations Work? Strengthening the Research Agenda September 6, 2001. Retrieved from on February 24, 2010.

[27] Daniels, Tom. Purchasing Development Rights: The Experience in Lancaster County, PA. page 1. Retrieved from on February 24, 2010

[28] Ibid. page 1.

[29] Retrieved from on February, 24 2010.

[30] Balance; The Growth Management Element of the Comprehensive Plan for Lancaster County, PA. pages 5-1 to 5-24. Retrieved from on February 24, 2010

[31]Marin Agricultural Land Trust website History. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Sokolow, Al. California, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Countywide program, Formed in 1980. Retrieved from on February, 25 2010

[34]American Farmland Trust. Farmland Information Center. Fact Sheet: Agricultural Conservation Easements. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Marin Agricultural Land Trust website Stewardship Background. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] American Farmland Trust. Farmland Information Center. Fact Sheet: Agricultural Conservation Easements. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[41] Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Basic Sample Easement. Updated October 2008. page 3. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[42] American Farmland Trust. Farmland Information Center. Fact Sheet: Agricultural Conservation Easements. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[43]Draft Countywide Farmland Protection Plan. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[44] Buncombe County Tax Department, Present Use Valuation Informational Brochure. page 1. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Bingham, Sam - Compiler.  An Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection Plan for Buncombe County. November 2007. Page 24. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[47] Buncombe County Tax Department, Present Use Valuation Informational Brochure. page 1. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Application For Farmland Preservation Program. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Bingham, Sam - Compiler.  An Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection Plan for Buncombe County. November 2007. page 24. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[52] Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. History of Oregon's Land Use Planning. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[53] Oregon Legislative Assembly - 1973 Regular Session. Senate Bill 101. page 3. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[54] Ibid.

[55] National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Local Food Guides (Summary). Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[56] Adam, Katherine L. 2006. National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Community Supported Agriculture. page 1. Retrieved from on February 25, 2010.

[57] Ibid. page 1.

[58] Ibid. page 3.

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