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Despite value, Midwest farmland disappearing to residential development

Homes sit alongside farmland near the site were Foxconn Technology Group is building a giant manufacturing complex in the village of Mount Pleasant. From 1992 on, nearly 31 million acres of farmland have been developed for residential use around urban centers and in rural areas, according American Farmland Trust's latest report, "Farms Under Threat." (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Homes sit alongside farmland near the site were Foxconn Technology Group is building a giant manufacturing complex in the village of Mount Pleasant. From 1992 on, nearly 31 million acres of farmland have been developed for residential use around urban centers and in rural areas, according American Farmland Trust’s latest report, “Farms Under Threat.” (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

America has lost millions of acres of farmland over nearly three decades to urban and rural development.

Despite conservation work by state and local governments and increased financial incentives for farmers, urban development and the expansion of rural residential real estate over the past 25 years have devoured farmland throughout the country at at a speed not seen since the early 1970s.

From 1992 on, nearly 31 million acres of farmland have been developed for residential use around urban centers and in rural areas, according American Farmland Trust’s latest report, “Farms Under Threat.”

And as residential development mingles with agricultural production on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, the tension between the two increases.

Recent clashes have led to lawsuits in North Carolina over odor and disease from hog operations and new research on whether drifting pesticides are affecting nearby schools and homes.

In Kane County, Illinois, officials were quick to recognize the threat and made a commitment to keep half the county’s land dedicated to agricultural use and open spaces.

But that’s a rarity both in Illinois, a state that has lost more than 735,000 acres of farmland since 1997, and the Midwest at large.

Nearly 100 counties and municipalities throughout the country have adopted some form of farmland protection. But fewer than a dozen of them are in the Midwest.

In Kane County, the response was to offer farmers an opportunity to sell development rights for their land to the county, using something called a conservation easement. Easements of this sort are meant to ensure land is used permanently for agriculture.

“We were trying to create some balance in terms of what gets developed and where,” said Janice Hill, farmland protection manager with Kane County.

Although the county was dealing with development in both suburbs and rural areas, officials there didn’t distinguish between the two.

“It’s just the pattern of development, because large lot estate zoning is, in some ways, the worst development for ag soils,” she said.

From 1976 to 2016, more than 23,500 parcels of land have been acquired throughout the country using conservation-easement policies, protecting more than 3.6 million acres of farmland.

Most of this has been done on the east coast. In the Midwest, only Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin have easement policies.

Most of these policies are paid for using taxes, bonds or appropriation spending. Kane County, though, mainly pays for its easements using gambling revenues. In the past 40 years, more than $5.7 billion has been paid to farmers through easement policies, according to the Farmland Information Center.

One of the biggest concerns about conservation easements is that they are permanent. But Hill said that’s part of the appeal to farmers who are concerned about future uses of their land.

“At any point in time you have to think about policies that are going to work over a 50-year period or a 100-year period, not just what the market is interested in,” Hill said. “If the land becomes a forever farm, as some of our families say, that really gives a lot of peace of mind, especially the families that have their land for generations and pass it down through generations. They truly feel a calling to keep their land in agriculture.”

But there are barriers to conservation easements. Hill said one reason more counties in the Midwest haven’t adopted these policies is that they require a lot of money. Although easements in Kane County are mainly paid for using gambling revenue, planners are looking at other sources, including fees from urban development within the county.

Another reason the Midwest has so few protection plans is that there is still not the perception of a threat. Much of the Midwest is still flush with agricultural land.

A more widely adopted method of encouraging landowners to keep land in agriculture use has been preferential taxation, in which taxes are paid according to land’s value in farming, instead of its market value.

“You might have an acre of land that, in a developed use, would be worth $10,000, but only pays its property tax on $800,” said Lori Lynch, professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland.

She said tax incentives have gone a long way to slow down farmland development in the Northeast. Unlike conservation easements, preferential taxation doesn’t lock land into farming forever. When land is no longer used for agriculture, a conversion tax is paid.

“The county or the state has been getting a lower tax revenue from this land for quite some time,” Lynch said. “This is a way for the county and state to recoup some of that benefit that the landowner received.”

More than easements or preferential taxation, the development of farmland was slowed down by the recession in 2008. But Hill said farmers still wanted to protect their land.

“Even when the development pressures slowed down due to the recession, we still had a strong interest in the program. So to me that says that it’s not just about the context of the surrounding land pressure for development,” Hill said. “It’s also about true conservation principles and protecting the family farm.”

Clearly, farmers and ranchers benefit from easements and tax breaks for agricultural land. But Paul Gottlieb, associate professor of agricultural, food and resource economics at Rutgers University, points out that it’s not farmers who are the strongest advocates for farmland protection.

“Urban and suburban residents in relatively affluent areas have been driving this movement,” Gottlieb said. “Not only driving it but putting up money to pay for the purchase of farmland and for the purchase of development rights.”

Developers are also looking at blending agriculture into suburban surroundings. In northern Kane County, the planners of the Serosun Farms housing development have tried to make sure their project blends in with nearby farmland.

John DeWald, developer heading up the project, said 70 percent of Serosun will remain in agricultural use. There will continue to be public barns, farmers markets and farm plots, as well as orchards, test plots and conservation woodlands and wetlands.

DeWald said researchers have identified more than 100 of what are being dubbed “agrihoods.”

“There are different kinds of farm and food elements to these developments,” DeWald said. “Some of them are more occasional gardens. There’s a participation element to them. It’s a gathering place.

Others are large enough and functional enough that they can serve the community to some extent. The intent here at Serosun over the long haul is to build up a much bigger farming and food operation that serves well beyond the borders of the community.”

DeWald said even though Serosun is the result of the residential development of farmland, he is working with Kane County to meet conservation goals. But he warns that not all developers of “agrihoods” are necessarily committed to the responsible development of agricultural land.

He said there’s no specific ratio of farmland to development that’s needed to call a development an “agrihood.” It’s really a matter of intention, DeWalk said.

“The concern is that developers will use this as a way to get concessions to redevelop agricultural land. They put an acre garden in there and ‘Whoo! We’re an agrihood!'” DeWald said.

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