The impermanence of agriculture has been the major reason for the vulnerability of country living to economic change or decay and the replacement of the countryside by industrial development. The lack of a permanent agriculture has been due to (at least) three major factors:
- the historical tendency of farmers to move to another region to seek more favorable farm land and farming circumstances;
- the perverse economics of agriculture, which drives many farmers out of business altogether; and
- the expansion of urban and suburban sprawl into farmland.
Photo below. Farm auction in Dawson, West Virginia (Click image for full-size in pop-up.) For additional photos, see my photo album, Farm Auction.
The first factor is beyond the control of law; no farmer should be compelled to remain in farming if s/he does not want to. Agricultural economics are largely, but not completely beyond the reach of government; but federal agricultural policy and subsidy has historically, since the New Deal, been a major influence in supporting farming, especially industrial farming. Sprawl, a land-use issue, is within the purvue of traditional land-use tools.
There can be no long term development of the countryside (where country living is residing on the land and making a living from the land) without long-term stability of land-use patterns. A cultivated pastoral landscape requires generations to develop. Woodlands must be cleared for pastures and fields. Soils must be improved and conserved. Rain, water runoff, and water use must be managed. The infrastructure, from third-class gravel road to Internet service, must be built. The best product mix for production and export must be determined. Farming skills and lore and the craft skills of woodsmen, artisans, and artists must be developed and passed onto each successive generation of land owners and producers. And this active creation of the countryside must be done while the economics of the countryside change, as they always are ... while farming technology changes, food and fiber varietals change, the labor supply changes, consumer tastes shift, prices for products rise and fall.
Producers would be unwilling to make the investment of capital and labor needed to build a countryside, if there is no assurance that the world they are building has a long-term future. No doubt, some rural producers would sell-out in a flash, if offered the right price for their land. But many would prefer to remain in their livelihood and, if forced out by economics would try to re-establish themselves elsewhere. In the past seventy years, Southern California has seen, for example, three major moves of its regional dairy industry from Los Angeles, to the inland valleys, and, recently, to the deserts. Efforts to assist the dairy families to stay in place have included the Williamson Act, which enables establishment of geographical areas for agricultural use that would not see tax increases as high-tax uses of the land (such as residential and commercial development) reach their borders.
Click this link to view NASA's historical reconstruction of urban sprawl in the Baltimore region and an animation of deforestation due to urban sprawl.
It is particularly important to prevent residential subdivision development from entering the countryside. Agriculture and residential neighborhoods are incompatible, notwithstanding the fact that many residents are drawn to the countryside precisely because they like picturesque pastoral landscape.
Farming has characteristics that neighboring non-farmers, who have no investment in the farm, quickly come to dislike. Animal manure smells. Even the best managed farms have flies. Tractoring produces dust. Burning fields produce smoke. Pesticides drift into the residential neighborhood. Animal urine runs off fields into streams. Farmers are sometimes wary neighbors. Farmers don't want people wandering through their pastures and disturbing animals or helping themselves to food. After a farmer kills a few household dogs for attacking cattle, even the most sympathetic non-farming neighbors turn sour on farming next door. For these and other reasons, law suits against farms as nuisances are often filed by non farming residents shortly after residential subdivision infiltrates a farming region. It does not matter than ordinances might protect the farms as pre-existing use of the land; law suits make for poor relations. If law suits fail to dislodge the farms, suburbanites move to raise taxes. High taxes always kill agricultural use of the land.
McMansions march into agricultural land. Used by permission of spacing.ca. (Click on image for full-size in pop-up.)
Creating and preserving a countryside requires, therefore, protection from adverse development of the land. This is a difficult, even touchy, issue. Much farming and most ranching takes place on unincorporated county territory, rather than within cities. This territory will have a minimum of land-use regulation, compared to the cities; this is the way most farmers want matters to be. Yet, unless farming is simply to be a way to hold land for the next generation to sell at a fabulously high price to encroaching residential developers, some kind of the land-use protection must be put into place.
No land-use protection of agriculture will preserve farming against the worst-case scenario of residential development, where the choice is between farming and high-density housing needed for desperate city populations. We can call this scenario the "Southern California nightmare." Fortunately, in many sections of the country, such population pressures are rare. There, some land-use regulations would help build and preserve the countryside. Two basic tools might be considered.
One, countryside districts (or overlay districts or zones). A state legislature would have to pass legislation enabling the countryside district.
- A countryside district would be defined geographically in terms of its predominant land use and to preserve its primary values, such as historical significance and aesthetic landscape. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized preservation of aesthetic qualities of landscape and architecture as within the police powers of the state under the general welfare clause.
- It should prevent certain kinds of land-use as incompatible with the pastoral qualities the district law protects, for instance strip mining, manufacturing industry, unaesthetic industrial development, and mass residential subdivision.
- It should prescribe a maximum residential density, such as one dwelling for every twenty-five acres.
- It should prohibit spot zoning for residential subdivision and prohibit leap-frogging residential subdivisions.
- Countryside districts should be buffered from residential subdivisions and suburbs by non-farming borders. A border of conserved woodland and pasture, at least five acres wide (for instance), would provide recreation and teaching opportunities, as well as prevent nearby farms from become nuisances to residential areas.
The law enabling countryside districts should contain positive powers, as well as negative powers. Districts should have authority:
- to conduct surveys and plan land use,
- to regulate land use through permitting and inspection,
- to administer special tax rates,
- to set country tax rates at existing use, rather than highest-and-best use,
- to maintain low enrollment country schools,
- to subsidize special services, and
- should have authority to deal with emergencies, such as drought, flood, and epidemics of plant and animal diseases, in ways tailored to local circumstances within the context of state programs and assistance.
A district should be able to define preferences for certain kinds of farming, for instance, diversified, small family farming (less than 50 acres [for example]), or large animal farming, or truck farming, or horticulture, or to specify other preferred country living economic activities. The district surely has to be careful in such declarations, because choice of product selection should be up to the farmers.
The district could also declare what kinds of land-based businesses it wishes to include within its boundaries, such as furniture making from local wood, distilling whiskey from local water, weaving textiles from local wool, making artisan cheeses from local goats and sheep, and so on.
The district should be given powers of Appellation d'Origin de Contrôlée. A district authority might declare, to give examples, that "Smithson County Goat Cheese" has 80% Smithson County goat milk; or "Alfred County Oak Furniture" is 100% Alfred County oak woods, or "Chisholm County Beef" is from beeves born, raised, finished, and slaughtered in Chisholm County. Declarations of this sort have, over the past century, been extremely powerful in the marketing of regional countryside products. In France, wines are controlled by region. In California, minimum local grape content is specified for certain wine districts. Similarly, "bourbon" is a name limited to certain whiskeys distilled in Kentucky.
Two, county planning commission review. The commission should declare and administer a countryside district, have authority to review specific changes to land-use in pastoral districts, and have authority to remove a district.
I understand that establishing a planning commission for rural land is a dangerous tool. It puts power into the hands of the commission. A commission could as easily be unsympathetic to enforcement of a pastoral district law as it could be sympathetic. Nonetheless, there is no other local governmental mechanism to control land-use.
Certain precautions could be taken the formation of a planning commission to ensure that district interests would not be overlooked. For instance, the law setting up a commission could require that several seats of the commission represent specific district businesses, such as beef farming, if raising beef is an important part of the district, or furniture maker, if artisan furniture making is important in the district.
A Theory of Rural Life
1. What is Country Living?
2. Social-Economic Classes.
3. Conditions for Successful Production.
4 pt. 1. Land-Use Stability.
4 pt. 2. Landscape Preservation.
5. Country Living Values.
6. What Are Values?
7. A Home Place.
8. Education and Identity.
9. Marketing the Countryside.
10. Conclusions and Recommendations.
(Revised, April 6, 10, 11, 14, 21, 2007.)