Barnyards and Birkenstocks: Why Farmers and Environmentalists Need Each Other

Excerpt from Chapter 2, Page 24

“Urbanites often complain about farmers who sell out for development.  But it doesn’t make much sense to blame the farmer.  In some cases, farmers have accumulated value in their land, and may own it outright.  But in many others, that land may have been deeply mortgaged–for its original purchase, for cash to cover other business investments, to buffer losses in bad years, and very often to cover ongoing operating expenses.  Even where a farmer will receive significant cash equity upon selling out, that value is likely the product of a lifetime–or perhaps of generations–of personal or family labor and investment.  This may be the principal asset upon the value of which its owner hopes to retire.  The farmer may also have family whose needs and wishes must be considered.

“Who, among those of us who live in the city, would readily and happily sell our home, on the eve of our retirement, for less than it is worth, as a charitable gesture to a needy family or so someone could have the house who was preferred by the community but who couldn’t afford to pay full price?  Even if we wanted to do that, as a few of us might, the vast majority of us simply cannot.

“Blaming the farmer for how the world works makes no sense.

“In fact, the farmer is the very last person to truly want to see his or her farm converted to development.  Farmers typically spend their entire lives and careers working a single piece of land.  They have learned everything there is to know about its soils, contours, pest problems, crop potential, climate, drainage, and other issues and opportunities.  They know the best strategies for making that farm flourish and pay.  They have invested heavily in its barns, fences, soils, equipment, and housing.  They have been raised there and raised there children there as well.  So they have also committed a lot of thought and effort to making it a safe and desirable place to live.  This is, for them, a life’s work or perhaps the work of several generations.  Of the many farmers I’ve met and with whom I’ve discussed these issues over the years, there has not been a single one who said they would prefer that their farm be someday converted out of farming and into development.

“When farmers sell their land to a developer, they do so because they have no other realistic choice.  Society has wired up our political, legal, and economic rules such that they effectively compel these sales.  If we don’t like it, that is what we need to do something about.”