2006.10.12: October 12, 2006: Headlines: Figures: COS - Cameroon: Journalism: Speaking Out: The Capital Times: Margaret Krome writes: Establishing the right to farm is foremost in saving the land

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Cameroon: Special Reports: Cameroon RPCV and Columnist Margaret Krome: 2006.10.12: October 12, 2006: Headlines: Figures: COS - Cameroon: Journalism: Speaking Out: The Capital Times: Margaret Krome writes: Establishing the right to farm is foremost in saving the land

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Margaret Krome writes: Establishing the right to farm is foremost in saving the land

Margaret Krome writes: Establishing the right to farm is foremost in saving the land

"Get started soon," everyone told us. Don't wait until development pressure has pushed up land prices so high you can't afford to protect it. For Wisconsin to continue to support our $51.3 billion agricultural industry, we must start with protecting the farmland so crucial to our state and nation, and we must start soon. Journalist Margaret Krome served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon.

Margaret Krome writes: Establishing the right to farm is foremost in saving the land

Margaret Krome: Establishing the right to farm is foremost in saving the land
By Margaret Krome

Eternity is a very long time. It's humbling to stand and watch a process that will last, for all practical purposes, forever. And that's the experience that this generation witnesses every time we see farmlands that support our nation and rural communities get converted to industrial, commercial and especially residential uses. Wisconsin's own farmlands are being destroyed for farming at an ever-increasing rate.

Some social problems have an ebb and flow - more crime, then less crime, growing poverty, disease, violence, then effective remedies applied. But in the case of farmland conversion, the process is a one-way street. Once a development's basements, parking lots, sewer systems, street lights, houses and stores engulf Wisconsin's rich farming soils, no one can ever return to growing oats, producing milk or raising chickens on them.

It's a source of despair for some and resignation for many. A retired developer I met in the Baltimore airport last week was one who saw no hope. "Development is a simple result of a growing population," he said. "There's really nothing you can do about it."

His defeatism was the perfect starting point for the next five days, which I spent with a group of 50 Wisconsin farmers, local and state officials and others. After leaving the Baltimore airport, we launched into an intense schedule of discovering how, in the face of enormous development pressures, leaders in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have protected thousands of farms in those three states alone.

In the historic countryside surrounding Gettysburg, Pa., where our nation's unity hung in the balance for three days in July 1863, the crucial role of farmland for the fate of our nation's independence and economic future feels especially poignant. One farmer said it best when he told us why he had preserved his farmland.

"It just wasn't clear to me that I had a God-given right to keep future generations from farming this land," he said.

Not everyone realizes that when we buy a piece of land, we're actually buying a bundle of rights, including mineral rights, development rights and others. Furthermore, such rights can be separately held or sold, and each right has a market value, based on the demands for its use. For example, in an area that is rapidly growing, the right to develop land for residential or commercial uses has a greater value than it would in an area without a market for those uses.

Thus a key strategy to protect prime farmland is to protect the right to develop it.

Each community and each state we visited used a different combination of approaches. Some communities set up a funding pool to buy development rights from farmers and put them in a trust with the county. The farmer was paid the market value for the difference of the land's value for farming and its value if a developer were to buy it. Whereas farmers in one township might sell their development rights for $12,000 an acre, in other communities with less development pressure, they would sell for less.

A Maryland farmer described having invested his payments in mutual funds and bonds for retirement. "And I kept the farm," he said. "I'm still farming, and it's still my land. It's protected for farming in perpetuity, but I can sell it or pass it down, just as I always could." He said that his land had actually increased in value, because other farmers now want to buy it, since they know it's in an area being protected for farming.

In Montgomery County, Md., leaders craft deals where developers can buy development rights from farmers only if applied in areas that are zoned to receive development. Developers are happy as they are allowed to develop at higher densities, bringing them more money, but farmland is protected as farmers from whom development rights have been purchased cannot develop their land.

These and other programs cost varying amounts, and each community described a different combination of funding sources to support their program. But all had a few pieces of advice in common.

• "Protect farms in clusters." This helps farmers support each other as well as the agriculturally related businesses that won't survive if land gets too fragmented.

• "You'll need real leaders." Every community could point to local, legislative and farmer leaders who recognized the importance of agriculture to their counties and worked to protect it.

Many local leaders told us that preserving farmland has profited their local community economically. Not only are farms critical to their economy, they said, but several said that their jurisdiction saves millions of dollars each year by not having to pay for the extra roads, sewage extensions, schools and other costs that development incurs.

• Above all, "Get started soon," everyone told us. Don't wait until development pressure has pushed up land prices so high you can't afford to protect it. For Wisconsin to continue to support our $51.3 billion agricultural industry, we must start with protecting the farmland so crucial to our state and nation, and we must start soon.

We need farm groups and other leaders willing to take risks, try new things and forge support for programs in the state to keep farmland in farming - forever.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. E-mail: mkrome@inxpress.net
Published: October 12, 2006

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Story Source: The Capital Times

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