| 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 1980.
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 for these.
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 and cultures.
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.