It had been 8 years since the last national land preservation conference. I was happy to attend the most recent one in Hershey, PA last week, entitled Saving America’s Farms and Farmland: celebrating 40 Years of Farmland Preservation. It was a chance to recognize the amazing accomplishments in land preservation, to acknowledge some of the movement’s founders and to identify future needs and strategies.
Agricultural land preservation programs are a relatively recent public initiative, with the first county program occurring in 1975. The programs were in response to a land use development pattern, now called residential sprawl, that emerged at the end of World War II. As the troops returned from the war, they needed a place to live. The combination of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (that established Veterans Affairs or VA Home Loans) and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (creating the Interstate Highway System) gave land developers the market and high speed road access to vast rural areas with relatively cheap farmland to develop. In a few decades, the farm belts that had fed the metro areas for centuries began to be paved over.
In a global food economy, why should we care if the farms around us are developed?
I was reminded at the conference that interest in land preservation arose after teamster strikes in the 1960s caused empty shelves in the grocery stores in New England. Elected officials and citizens realized that our emerging global food chain could easily be disrupted by natural or human-made events. Folks were again reminded how precarious our food chain is on September 11, 2001. After the terrorists attacks, planes stopped flying and other transportation systems stopped moving. Elected officials and policy analysts realized consumers in places like New York City are just about 36 hours from a real food crisis.
It was no mistake that the first land preservation program in the nation was in Suffolk County, New York and that the first statewide land preservation program was in Maryland. These are areas with huge population centers, surrounded by declining farming areas that have historically supplied most of the food to the urban areas.
The land preservation programs have helped to maintain the farmland base being used to fuel the local food movement. Without that land base in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions, we would not be seeing the resurgence farming today.
Have land preservation efforts been effective?
Each session that I attended reinforced my opinion that the efforts were paying dividends. There were representatives from eighteen states and I heard presentations from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont. While none of the state programs had met its ultimate acreage goals, a significant amount of land has been preserved. As previously reported, Maryland has already preserved approximately 800,000 acres via state, county and private land preservation programs, a significant portion of the 2 million acres of farmland remaining in Maryland.
Dr. Lori Lynch, University of Maryland, has conducted a study of land preservation programs in six states and reported in 2009 that they:
- are slowing the rate of farmland loss and
- are reducing the rate of farmland loss by 3 -4 percent per year or 40-50% over a ten year period and even more over a longer period as indicated in the graph to the right.
Over the years, some critics have raised the concern that land preservation programs would raise public costs and stymie economic development. A New Jersey study did a comprehensive analysis of the state’s 565 municipalities (all state lands are in municipalities in New Jersey). Ralph Siegel, Executive Director of the Garden State Preservation Trust, reported that they found no correlation between land preservation and a suppression of growth in the tax base. They also found that in every instance, municipalities which had preserved farmland had lower tax rates.
Debra Bowers wrote a more thorough report on the conference in her Farmland Preservation Report. It includes a description of many of the state programs and a description of the work by award recipients J. Dixon “Dick” Esseks, Michael McGrath, and Alan Musselman. Most of the presentations will be posted on the conference page of the Rutgers website by June 2nd.
Of course, the work in land preservation is not done. There are fewer public dollars available today and most farmland has not been preserved. And there are challenges in enforcing the easements and maintaining affordable farmland, even if it has been preserved. However, without the efforts of the attendees, food security would be much more tenuous.