| NOVEMBER 15, 2003:
In the Midwest we live in wide-open spaces. Most prairie has
given way to fields of corn, wheat and soybeans, and the range
land to improved pastures. But we still seem to have plenty
of space. Visitors from Europe proclaim, "What a huge and
empty country this is!"
Europeans have learned over centuries to protect farmland. What
these visitors don't see easily is the accelerating conversion
of our open farm and range land to development. They also don't
see the prohibitive land prices that make it next to impossible
for new farmers to get started.
Across the country, we now convert rural land to suburban small
acreages, housing developments, malls, roads and industrial
uses at a rate unprecedented in our history. American Farmland
Trust reports that close to three acres are converted to non-agricultural
use every minute. In a year this adds up to 2,464 square miles,
a square almost 50 miles to the side. The per capita land area
for non-farm activities is at least 50 percent higher than before
Tammy Zimmerman, whose family raises swine, corn and soybeans
near Beatrice, Neb., said the four farms sold near hers most
recently were for a golf course, a hunting farm, a subdivision
and a new power plant. Farming can't compete with prices paid
During a year of planning hearings by Nebraska's Lincoln and
Lancaster counties, vested interests met and pushed their agendas.
Homebuilders and environmental groups were especially active.
Among the least organized participants were farmers. And most
farmers who testified were concerned about how new zoning would
affect their gains from land sales -- not how to preserve farmland.
Part of why they don't want to continue farming is the incredible
increase in land values due to speculation. In fact, there is
no part of the two counties where land values are based on agriculture
potential. The basis is development potential. David Goeller,
University of Nebraska farm transition specialist, says land
prices are up because of low interest rates, a poor stock market,
new federal farm programs and tax advantages for property transfers.
When my wife and I were on sabbatical to Norway in 1998, we
saw how our cousins in northern Europe have found how to solve
or at least minimize this problem of sprawl. They establish
permanent green belts around cities. I asked when the forage
field behind our house in Ås would be developed, given
shortages of housing near the university in a town of 8,000.
I got a blank stare: "But that's farmland, of course. It
will always be that way."
In Norway and Sweden all people have access to private forest
land, even without permission, as long as they do not take or
leave anything - this based on common law going back more than
1,000 years. The entire Norwegian coastline is public domain.
I have found that there is much to learn from other systems
We can explore alternatives to the United States' urban sprawl
through education. Each spring the University of Nebraska offers
a course called Urbanization of Rural Landscapes. It is taught
in evenings so community members as well as students can attend.
We study the statistics of sprawl, and examine places in California
and Pennsylvania where the challenges are even greater than
in Nebraska. Students explore the long-term effects of unchecked
urban growth, and consider alternatives based on models from
innovative communities in the United States and elsewhere. Prairie
Crossing, clustered housing in Gray's Lake, Ill., is a model
for preserving prairie and farmland around homes.
Through such, we can make people more aware of effects of our
individual and community investments and decisions. The loss
of land could be called the result of a "tyranny of many
small decisions" from which a few people profit, and after
which public open space and farmland disappear. We hope education
can make a difference, and we can look to other places, such
as Europe, for solutions developed over centuries of experience.
Charles Francis is a professor of agronomy and horticulture
at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor of several
books. He is founder and co-editor of "Our Sustainable
Future" a book series from University of Nebraska Press.
Francis is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project
of the Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture organization
in Salina, Kan.