Urban Development: Is It Making It Too Hard For Children To Stay On The Farm?

Rincker Law Food & Ag Law Leave a Comment

This past week I was asked this very question and it made me think about the connection between urban development and our children who grew up in production agriculture who later leave the farm only to get a job in a metropolitan area.  In this blog, I mentioned that this issue is creating a problem for agriculture estate and succession planning as some farmers and ranchers do not have children trained and/or interested in taking over the agriculture operation.  As my parents age and I am 1000 miles away, I cannot help but think about this succession issue with my own family’s cattle operation. 

As I write this blog from the most densely concentrated city in the United States, I believe that cities should be built up instead of out and our farmland should be preserved as much as possible.  I realize that I am someone “who left the farm to move to the city,” but as an agriculture attorney I still feel very deeply connected to the farm and hope to one day be more intimately involved in production agriculture (for myself and my children).  I do not believe that urban development is the reason why I have chosen to hang my hat in NYC instead of Shelbyville, Illinois but I do understand how urban development is affecting our rural economies and making it increasingly difficult for younger generations to stay on the farm or ranch.  (This is part of the reason why I support the current efforts to bring broadband to rural areas). 

If you study the results from the Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) National Agriculture Statistics Service (“NASS”) (@USDA_NASS), the number of livestock operations and acres in production have continued to decrease.  I encourage you to look at the statistics for your county from the 2007 report

Statistically, there are less and less full-time agriculture producers and increased pressures to depend on off-farm income.  I grew-up this type of operation.  Throughout my childhood, my parents both worked full-time and came home each night to do chores.  I respect the work ethic, devotion, and love for the agriculture business to maintain this type of schedule over a lifetime; however, it does make it difficult for children on these operations to feel that it is possible to go back to the farm and help it grow large enough to financially support them full-time.  Furthermore, urban development and the subdivision of land is making farmland significantly more expensive.  This puts up a financial hurdle for younger generations who wish to go back to the family farm.

I recently asked my “ag tweeps” on Twitter whether urban development was making it hard for our kids to stay on the farm.  Here is what they had to say:

@KennedyNick – “Yes.  It has created a buffet of jobs that make it easier to make a living.  Why go back to the farm and work those hours.”

@DatilCowman – “Not only has [urban] development affected [our] children’s ability [to leave the farm] but also their desire . . . .”  This longhorn rancher in New Mexico believes there’s not enough money in farming right now and there is too much subdivision.

@cornwuff – “There was no room to grow in my urbanized area that my hometown had become[; therefore,] I did not return to the farm.”

@AzHunderPony –  “I think urban development has trashed farm life’s sound traditions for our youth.”

@CowgirlOasis remembers when her grandmother wrote to the county government regarding the development of a road in 1936 across her land.  “[J]ust lost more in 2008 due to expansion.”  This Arizona cowgirl continued to note that the philosophy in her county is that “if land is undeveloped then it’s a candidate.”

@DayAngus – “Yes, urban development in IL is swallowing up the best farmland.  Next generation cannot afford the outrageous price of land.”

If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to read the thorough report published in 2001 by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (“ERS”) titled “Development at the Urban Fringe and Beyond:  Impacts on Agriculture and Urban Land.”  I was shocked to learn that between 1960 and 1990, urban expansion claimed more than 1 million acres per year; yet, as the article points out, urban sprawl is not viewed as a major threat to agriculture.  This article gives an excellent overview of the types of urban growth, the costs of urban growth (e.g., infrastructure, transportation, taxes, environmental changes, impacts on open space and sense of community), and consequences on farming.  It also gives a brief summary of “smart growth,” which is a land use and zoning tool used in urban and suburban communities, and discusses the role of the federal government to help slow urban development. 

So what do you think?  Is urban development making it too difficult for our children to stay in production agriculture?

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