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Farmland Preservation Issues

The following information was adapted from "Watershed Resource Papers" developed for the Dowagiac River Watershed Project by Langworthy, Strader, LeBlanc, & Associates, Inc.

The preservation of farmland is a controversial issue. Many rural, non-farm residents want to preserve farmland while many farmers also want to preserve the land while retaining the option to sell. However, as development increases and agricultural commodity prices decline, the challenges to preserving the farmland become greater.

Preserving farmland often draws a fine line between private property rights and the obligation of a community to protect and preserve land resources for future generations. Who has the right to decide what land will be developed, preserved, or utilized? These basic questions have kept many communities from taking aggressive measures to protect farmland from development. As a result, most farmland preservation programs are either voluntary or apply only to limited areas perceived as being very valuable farmland, such as orchards or vineyards
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Click here to view full size picture State tax assessment guidelines and many local land use regulations are generally not conducive to protecting farmland. In many rural areas this has caused rapid development of single family homes on large lots, land fragmentation, and increased farmland property values (beyond its agricultural worth).

The effects of non-agricultural development on existing farm operations is a particularly troublesome issue. New development can make daily farming operations difficult and sometimes dangerous. New residents in farming areas may not understand basic farming needs, such as manure handling. As a result, farmers are forced to contend with increased traffic and nuisance complaints by new neighbors who object to slow moving vehicles on roadways, noise, dust, odors, and late hours of operation. As development pressures build, so will additional complaints regarding agricultural practices.

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Click here to view full size picture Farming creates jobs, provides a product for sale, and pays taxes. Farmland may also provide substantial environmental benefits, including floodplain protection, groundwater recharge, and wildlife habitat. In addition, the tradition of family owned farms has been passed down from generation to generation; supporting a strong social structure focused on community and family.

In evaluating the value of farmland, there must be a basic assumption that farmland is worth saving. Therefore, the basis for farmland protection centers around farming as an economically productive activity which merits protection based on a variety of factors, but especially its quality, location, and economic value.

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Click here to view full size picture Not all farmland is of equal quality or provides equal benefit. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided a number of definitions to help classify farmland.

Prime farmland is land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops. Prime farmland has the soil quality, growing season, and moisture supply needed to economically produce sustained high yields of crops when treated and managed according to acceptable farming methods.

Locally important farmland is land other than prime farmland that is used for the production of specific high value food and fiber crops. Examples of such crops are tree nuts, cranberries, fruits, and vegetables. Locally important farmland can also include "unique" lands; crops common to a county.

Unique farmland is land other than prime farmland that is used for the production of specific high value food and fiber crops. It has the special combination of soil quality, location, growing season, and moisture supply needed to economically produce sustained high quality and/or high yields of a specific crop when treated and managed according to acceptable farming methods. Examples of such crops are tree, bush and vine fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops.

Other agricultural land may be too small for detailed classification. Also, lands now used for agricultural production may contain soils not generally considered favorable for crop production but still yield a worthwhile return. These properties must also be considered when determining the relative value of farmland.

Certain location factors such as climate, air quality, and water availability and quality also contribute to defining high quality agricultural land - land which achieves that precise combination of water, soil, temperature, and sun to produce high yields or unique crops.

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Click here to view full size picture The rate and location of farmland loss are critical factors to be considered when assessing the need for local farmland preservation policies and programs. If the rate of loss has accelerated to an uncontrollable degree as a result of market prices and demand, preservation efforts may be futile. However, if the trend of conversion is recognized early enough, effective preservation efforts may be able to be implemented.

The following should be mapped to illustrate farmland conversion as well as potential areas for preservation:

Acreage and location of farmlands converted to non-farm uses;
Parcel distribution and size; and
Amount and ownership of productive agricultural land.

Special environmental issues, such as agricultural wastes and groundwater quality and quantity, must also be considered. The impacts of agricultural operations, as with any other land use, must be evaluated relative to the environment. Sensitive groundwater recharge areas, for instance, may be highly vulnerable to contamination. Intensive livestock operations in such areas may pose a contamination threat to drinking water and therefore may be subject to reasonable restrictions.

Agricultural lands do not require the extent of services that residential, commercial, and industrial uses do. Farm fields do not send ears of corn to school, require an extensive transportation network, request public water and sewer, or demand police and fire services. For example, a study conducted in Scio Township, near Ann Arbor, revealed that for every tax dollar new non-agricultural development contributed to the community, $1.40 was required for services. Conversely, agricultural land only required $0.62 in services for every dollar contributed.

Directing new development into areas that are zoned for development purposes and discouraging the expansion of low-density development into rural agricultural zones can assist in protecting farmland. Encouraging higher density development in areas where urban services are available can assist in the protection of farmlands elsewhere. Any community committed to the protection of farmland must encourage new development in areas where it belongs.
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