Last summer, as I heard the news of Pierce County’s “disappearing farmland,” I felt mixed emotions. Farmland preservation advocates are clamoring to protect open space in the form of farmland. However, the rezoning classifications which would be implemented devalue farmland and actually hurt farmers.
I love farmland. I enjoy driving a few extra miles through farm country just to enjoy the view, and my best memories are of going on veterinary farm calls with my dad. While fully recognizing the beauty of green fields, peaceful farmhouses and sweeping open spaces, I know firsthand that farmland doesn’t exist just for the benefit of visitors.
Farming is a business. As scenic as the food growing countryside is, farmers are not running a cultural museum. Farms need to be profitable. Farmers need to make money so they can pay for land, crops, equipment, employee salaries, taxes, and earn an income for their families. If laws and regulations establish acreage targets, farmers will cease to exist and communities will be left with “open space” symbolizing once-productive farmland.
For farm families, land is their primary, and often only, economic asset and their primary risk management tool. It pays for daily living, retirement plans, health insurance, business loans and college savings. Restrictive rules like the state’s Growth Management Act unfairly reduce the value of a farm family’s land by banning other uses, thus destroying much of its value.
Government-imposed reductions in land values hurt the ability of farmers to gain access to credit. Banks will not give loans for more than the legally allowed value of the land, thus denying farmers the annual financing they need to work the land. Even a mid-size farm typically needs some $60,000 a year in financing, always with the hope that a good harvest will allow the farmer to pay off the loan. So-called farmland “preservation” rules work against farm families, and make it that much harder to keep the land profitable.
But is farmland really being lost? The state Department of Agriculture reports that cropland has increased by 257,000 acres since 2008, a land area five times the size of Seattle. The claim of open space advocates that we need to hurt farmers in the name of “saving” agricultural land is neither fair nor justified.
Profitable and productive cropland is rarely sold for development. It makes more sense for farmers to sell pastureland that is unsuited for growing food because of weeds, poor drainage or low-quality soil. The farm lands that the local news frantically reports as “disappearing” are typically the lowest-quality and least productive fields.
Selling unproductive fields is one way farm families manage their business, allowing investment in productive land and adoption of best practices that reduce impact on the environment. Harsh regulations that “save” open land may make urban-based advocates and politicians feel good, but unfairly discriminates against families trying to make a living from farming.
Advocates cite King County as an example of poor farmland protection, where 12 acres of farmland were sold to a developer for $4.5 million to build a subdivision. To put this in perspective, 12 acres of agricultural land in King County would average $6,156 in market value production per acre, which is $73,878 for the entire 12-acre operation. At a purchase price of $4.5 million, it would take over 60 years to gain the equivalent return from agricultural production. Why should a farmer, who cultivated and worked the land for years, be refused the reward for risk-taking and stewardship?
Will the government make up that loss for the family? Who will pay the difference? Will you pay the farm family for their sacrifice so you can look at 12 acres of open space as you drive by? Top-down government regulation in the name of protecting farmland is just one more policy that does more harm than good to the people it purports to help.
Madilynne Clark is Agriculture Policy Research Director for Washington Policy Center, a nonprofit, non-partisan research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org