Here’s something farmers and environmentalists can agree on: Sprawl is bad.
They would also have to agree that it continues to happen at rates that only seem to climb. In 2002, American Farmland Trust reported that every minute this country was losing 2 acres of farmland to development. Most of that sprawl was happening on the edges of the nation’s suburbs; their neighboring farmland is an appealing target for developers because it’s usually open, flat and close to a water source.
What’s driving the sprawl? Two factors get most of the attention: land-use decisions and population growth. Both have been shown to contribute, but the former may be the more important. While the U.S. population grew by 17 percent between 1982 and 1997, the amount of land that went to urban development increased by 47 percent.
To a community, growth may sound appealing, but it does not necessarily create new wealth. When American Farmland Trust studied the fiscal impact of existing land uses in a Texas county, they found that the farms, ranches and open spaces actually created more income — three times more tax dollars than the county spent for their public services.
Sprawl is the focus of much debate today; it gets blamed for everything from increasing social isolation, global warming, asthma, obesity and erosion, to the extinction of wildlife and, of course, the disappearance of farmland.
For beef producers, sprawl translates into higher land prices, making it nearly impossible to put new land into production or keep a farm in operation if it goes on the market, where developers can drive out their competition. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, land was selling last year for about $1,500 per acre. That’s land that requires about 8 acres for a cow-calf unit per year, which means it would take an investment of $12,000 per cow in land alone. With calves bringing about $500, the problem in that equation is obvious.
Consumers get squeezed, too. As more and more land is taken out of production for grain, grass and cattle, they can expect to pay higher prices for beef. They are also likely to see more coming from overseas, as the American Farmland Trust warns that the loss of farmland could lead the United States to become a net food importer over the next 50 years.
The debate over sprawl solutions is complicated by the fact that it necessarily sets the public good in opposition to individual freedom. Few people would deny that open space and agriculture are valuable to the country. But who is willing to give up the right to build a house wherever he chooses?
The responsible, or smart, growth movement attempts to address that tension with choices such as eliminating development subsidies and building housing near transit centers; most sprawl, researchers say, results from zoning decisions made at the local level. No one-size-fits-all answer exists, but you can expect to hear about smart growth more and more frequently, as sprawl and its associated challenges continue to expand.