By Lynn R. Miller
Small Farmers Journal (Summer, volume 29, #3)
Why on earth do we find ourselves needing to defend the concept that farmland is fragile and valuable? If our food does not come from here – you’re here, my here, every here – we are vulnerable. If our food always comes from there, somewhere over there, somewhere eels, somewhere we have no influence over, we are vulnerable.
We trade off our farmlands at our own peril. When we scrap off the invaluable top soil to make room for concrete pads and asphalt and buildings, as we’ve done at increasing rates for decades, we destroy cubic tons of our capacity to grow food, of our capacity to sustain life. We trade life for a convenient place to put a building or a parking lot. We should be putting our buildings and parking lots in those areas of the planet which have less or no capacity to sustain life. We should have reverence for that which sustains life. Our farmland should be a sacred preserve. No thing should rank above saving farm land, nothing.
Over the years we have been involved in a variety of civic efforts to define and protect farmland from development. Early on I felt a disconnection between those who would protect “open spaces” at all costs and those who wanted to protect “farmland.” I have returned to areas of Lane County, Oregon and seen what has become of large tracts of land “we” successfully protected from development thirty years ago. Without exception they are developed now into housing tracts and shopping centers and industrial parks. Our efforts only succeeded in holding off the development until the pressure of land values and encroachment drew those “open spaces” into the ‘realm of the inevitable’. No effort in those doings had been made to identify the need s and aspirations of people who might actually want to farm the lands we wished to protect.
Consciously or otherwise, each of us holds within a priority or set of priorities which govern us and guide our choices in living. We must argue that those priorities cannot place money or law or leisure or power or fame above life. Our first priorities must always be about a reverence for the sustaining, fertile, balance, lively fabric of life, for the web of life, for the art and craft of life. That web of life does not exist for humans without our thin and vanishing layer of farmland. If we revere life, and we must, then it follows that farmland must be held in the same reverence.
In order to protect farmland you must first value farming and farmers. To set farmland aside an say ‘these are protected – we will not develop here’, without making it possible for the land to be farmed, is almost a guarantee that at some point his unused set-aside land will be developed. Every day logical arguments are made by expanding communities that nearby open spaces are valuable to the growth of that community. Open spaces with no designated or obvious use attributed to them other than that they be ‘open spaces’ are the first to fall to the planner’s gavel. So-called expert, sometimes of dubious distinction, are called before local governance to give clear and simple evidence that this open space can or cannot be economically viable as farmland.
“Yes, you might be able to grow crops here, but who would choose to farm this close to neighborhoods, and anyway this tract of land is worth far more to the town for a sewage treatment plant, industrial park, school, shopping center and housing than to grow a truck load of cabbages.” Seldom does anyone stand to speak in defense of farmland.
Where will the food come from to feed these expanding communities? From Mexico? From China? From Africa? From Europe? We have forgotten to ask. Most of us want to believe that there are intelligent people in government and industry who will not allow us to go without food. That these critical answers are being taken care of for us, every day and every way. If this were true then we would not be losing one child every 36 seconds to death by starvation all around the planet. It hasn’t hit North American yet; we are protected by our fragile credit/debit society. But at the rate we have sold off our capacity to produce food it will hit here, and sooner rather than later. We are paving over our farmlands and we are neglecting our farmers.
We need farmland upon which to grow food. And we need farming and farming knowledge in order to get the job done. Our farmland must be a sacred preserve. Our farms and our farming knowledge should also be a scare preserve.
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Center for Rural Affairs
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