Urban-Edge Communities Can Retain Agricultural Benefits


Credit: Michael Marrapese via FarmFolk/CityFolk

We've been reporting on the potential of urban agriculture regularly over the past few years. And just yesterday Mathew reported about how the UN is promoting organic agriculture as a way to ensure adequate and sustainable food for all the world. As developers push for more land for industrial and residential developments it's usually farmland that gets paved over. Two new report suggest practical ways to ensure that rapidly urbanizing communities retain farmland to produce food for the local population. American Farmland Trust (AFT), in cooperation with Dick Esseks and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has just released a report "regarding the long-term viability of agriculture in counties that are becoming increasingly urban." Farm Viability in Urbanizing Areas, explores how public policy sustains local agriculture and therefore local food systems. AFT assistant director, Anita Zurbrugg, explains,

As agricultural counties transition to more urban land uses, it becomes increasingly important to plan for agriculture. This report utilizes case studies to exemplify the obstacles in the way of agriculture, and what planning tools are available to overcome them.

The report looks at 15 county level case studies from 14 different states, and covers topics ranging from production inputs, marketing, farmland protection and outlook for the future. The common sense recommendations of the report include support for new farmers, zoning to preserve an agricultural land-base, and local encouragement of sustainable farm enterprises.

Farms closest to our cities, and often directly in the path of development, produce much of our fresh food— 63 percent of our dairy products and 86 percent of fruits and vegetables. Well-managed farm and ranch lands provide food and cover for wildlife, help control flooding, protect wetlands and watersheds, and maintain air quality. "Without local farmland there is no local food, and we've compromised a community's capacity to improve its environment and quality of life," says Zurbrugg.

In Janauary, Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia and Kent Mullinix from Kwantlen Polytechnic University published a discussion paper called Agriculture on the Edge. Their document deals with the issue of urban edge development and the loss of farmland. British Columbia has an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) which was set-up in the 1970's to protect the province's food-lands. The original intent of the ALR has lost some teeth, with developers often getting land "exempted" and thus available for development. This is often most acutely seen in the urban-rural edge.

When lands shift from agricultural to urban uses the land values increase substantially. The "lift" in value can be huge, from a $40,000 per acre value as agricultural lands to over $1 million per acre as urban lands (depending on location and specific development capacity).

In their paper Condon and Mullinix have proposed a solution to the continued loss of farmland. They propose a six-part plan to get the conversation started.
1. The province, the region, and its member municipalities might allow a particular kind of development, to incorporate agriculture, in a band of land (say at least 500 meters wide) at the interface between urban and agricultural or preservation lands. Such lands to be used for both urban and agricultural purposes in a deliberately integrated fashion.
2. This new band could be rezoned for medium to high density living on developed portions. For the sake of this discussion we shall assume a yield of 60 dwelling units per net acre, allowing for significant return on developer investment. Sixty dwelling units per net acre ("net" meaning the number of units per acre on just the development parcels) or 40 dwelling units per acre gross ("gross" meaning the number of units per acre when roads are included in the calculus) would exceed 10 dwelling units per "double gross" acre ("double gross" meaning the average density when open spaces and agricultural lands are also included in the calculus). Ten to fifteen dwelling units per double gross acre is usually considered the minimum density necessary to support viable transit service and local commercial services.
3. Protect, legally and in perpetuity (e.g. via covenant and/ or land trust consignment), two-thirds of this land (relinquished by the owner/developer) exclusively for agriculture. It may be desirable that designated agriculture lands ultimately come under ownership of the associated municipality. If it does we refer to this arrangement as Community Trust Farming.
4. Lease (very favorably) these agricultural lands to agricultural entrepreneurs and stipulate they be farmed exclusively for local/ regional markets, thus contributing to the sustainability of our communities and to genuine regional food security. Require that labor intensive, high value crops/ value added products (e.g. organic, direct marketed) be produced and that labor intensive highly productive and sustainable production practices be utilized as opposed to capital and input (pesticides, fertilizers, mechanization) intensive industrial methods.
5. Relegate the oversight of these lands to a non- governmental organization or organizations (NGOs), community/resident associations, or professional consulting agrologists under deed restrictions that would compel use as stated above.
6. Endow these lands with funds garnered at time of land sale to support local and sustainable agriculture in perpetuity. Through Provincial authorization, local governments already exact a Development Cost Charge from development projects, as a means to finance associated public infrastructure and services requirements associated with municipal growth. Per this scheme the local/ regional agri-food system becomes an integral element of municipal growth. Thus it seems reasonable that Development Cost Charge structures could be modified and appropriately used to support the creation and stewardship of municipally focused agri-food system components.

These two reports come from very different agricultural areas of the continent, but they both express the importance of preserving farmland on the urban-rural edge. Farm Viability in Urbanizing Areas researcher and lead author Dick Esseks concludes:
If we can better understand how to maintain a sufficient land base, to promote adequate marketing outlets and supplies of non-land inputs (credit, new farmers, hand labor, water, repair services, etc.), and to encourage types of farm enterprises likely to be profitable given market demand and input constraints, farming on the urban edge is likely to remain viable into the future.

Tags: Agriculture | Canada | Farming | Local Food | United States

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