Farmland has value, just not in small packages. As agricultural profit margins have gotten thinner and thinner, farm operations have had to become more productive and farms themselves larger and larger. So, as far as agriculture goes, small farms aren’t worth so much. And, all this cheap land on the edge of so many cities has helped fuel our suburban sprawl. It’s happened in every metro across America — cities are expanding faster than their population, taking up more acres for each person. Even cities that haven’t seen population growth have grown in overall area.
Cities lose when development moves outside their boundaries. They have to keep up with their infrastructure and maintenance costs — their roads, water and sewer lines, plowing snow — but they lose their tax base. It costs the same amount to resurface a road no matter who’s paying the property tax. Local governments around the country have tried to preserve rural areas and farmsteads, usually by purchasing land or development rights. All of this is, to say the least, expensive. But, we’re seeing a better way to help our rural areas. Instead of trying to catch up with the value suburban development pays for farmland, another tactic is to make farmland more valuable. Local food trends are already leading the way.
More and more people are interested in getting their food from local organic farms instead of the “1,000-mile Caesar Salad,” shipped from across the country. Local organic food is a little less efficient and a bit more expensive. Better for smaller farms. (Cage-free eggs are really tasty; they cost $5 a dozen, too.) Cities and towns surrounded by rural areas should try to make farming more profitable — set up farmers markets, promote their city’s connection to its countryside, set up local food networks with restaurants. For those lucky enough to have joint city-county governments, give farmers more choices. Make it easier to add B&Bs or wedding reception halls. The more people that can make money farming near our cities, the less likely it is our cities will spill into our farms.