An Artificial Farmland Crisis

Farmland is hardly an in-demand resource

Amidst all the clamor for land use controls, there is one slogan that is hear more often than any: “We need to protect America’s farmland!”

That is the battle cry of the “open-space” protection movement, which evokes images of pastoral farmland being laid waste before the onslaught of urban sprawl, rendering America a never-ending expanse of strip malls and subdivisions. It’s a chilling thought, and it would be a major problem to tackle – if it were real.

Farmland, it turns out, is hardly an in-demand resource. Demand for farmland has decreased dramatically over the past several decades.

More to the point, the so-called “Green Revolution,” encompassing both high-yield crops and energy intensive agriculture, resulted in millions of acres of farmland being reclaimed by wilderness in the United States. The proliferation of biotechnology has expanded this trend and given it new life.

In 1920, the US had some 600 million acres of wilderness. Today, estimates indicate that we have upwards of 140 million more.

Yet throughout this country, people are being led to believe that farmland ought to be preserved. In New Jersey, a new “brownfields” initiative is aimed at creating more farmland in vacant lots for the purpose of sparing other farmland from development. In Gilroy, California, officials are asking property owners to join the “Open Space Authority,” which would force them to pay $32 annually to fund farmland preservation efforts. The examples are endless.

In every case, some class of people is expected to make a sacrifice for the sake of preserving a shrinking market – the market for farmland.

Of course, no ill-advised policy is complete without federal involvement. As such, it should come as little surprise that the US Department of Agriculture is on the forefront of open space preservation, justifying a seemingly absurd policy by appealing to the vague concept of “rural amenities.”

According to the USDA’s website, “local farmland losses continue to cause concern and motivate growing public support for farmland protection.” However, there’s little sign of a grassroots effort at work. For the most part, professional planners and advocacy groups are driving this movement, and the USDA has been sucked along for the ride.

But what are these “rural amenities?” The USDA defines them as “open space, aesthetic landscapes, wildlife habitats, environmental services, agrarian cultural heritage, rural lifestyles, and recreational opportunities.”

None of these make much sense. Open space isn’t innately valuable. Aesthetic landscapes are nice for a Sunday drive, but little else. Wildlife habitats aren’t to be found in acres of corn – neither are environmental services. Agrarian cultural heritage and rural lifestyles won’t rise or fall on land use controls.

Oh, and you can’t enjoy recreational opportunities on somebody else’s farm. That—s a good way to get shot at for trespassing.

That illustrates the problem with trying to derive a public benefit from private property. In the final analysis, the property is still privately owned and therefore the primary benefits are accrued by the owner. Farmers get to grow their crops. The best we get in return is a warm fuzzy from gazing at farmland.

I can’t speak for society at large, but from my perspective, that’s a remarkably bad deal. Moreover, there’s an ideal solution waiting in the wings that nobody seems to have even considered: just let the market handle it.

Farmland won’t disappear simply because the government doesn’t act to protect it. There undoubtedly will be less of it in certain states with higher rates of urban development, but that merely reflects the reality that farmland isn’t needed in those areas.

For instance, New Jersey isn’t exactly an agrarian state. Their “brownfields” program is an attempt to deny this, and to preserve remaining farmland in the state, but ultimately the inescapable fact is that society benefits more when land is used in the most efficient manner possible.

So what we have now is an artificial crisis. Farmland is indeed disappearing in many places, but it’s actually a good thing. It’s a good thing that areas where more urban development is needed are seeing more homes and commercial developments. It lowers housing costs and ensures economic growth. In this way, the market is the guarantor of a better future for everyone.

Yes, let the market handle the crisis over “open space.” The only things we have to lose are our misconceptions.

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation