American Farmland Trust has partnered with Dick Esseks and the University of Nebraska to release a report regarding the long-term viability of agriculture in counties that are becoming increasingly urban.

The report, titled "Farm Viability in Urbanizing Areas," explores which public policy efforts have been effective in retaining the spectrum of benefits provided by local agriculture.  

“As agricultural counties transition to more urban land uses, it becomes increasingly important to plan for agriculture,” says Anita Zurbrugg, assistant director, AFT’s Center for Agriculture in the Environment, and one of the study's researchers. “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 is comprised of 15 county-level case studies from 14 different states, and is arranged into chapters covering future production inputs, marketing, farmland protection and outlook. Some key findings and recommendations from the report include:

  • Farmers were more likely to be positive about agriculture’s future in their county, if they regarded local government as sympathetic or at least even-handed in resolving conflicts between farmers and non-farmers.
  • State governments should enable, and local authorities should operate, effective programs for purchasing development rights to farmland, thereby, adding to the base that agricultural zoning supports or, achieving what zoning fails to realize. 
  • Local governments should apply zoning policies (for example, large minimum-lot requirements, cluster zoning, urban growth boundaries) that help to preserve an adequate land base for farming.
  • There are often insurmountable obstacles to young or beginning farmers to purchase and rent land, especially if they are not related to the current farm owners.  Public and private agencies should encourage farm families to plan carefully for the transfer of ownership and management to their children or other relatives.   
  • Public and private agencies should encourage the launching and sustainability of farm enterprises likely to be profitable on the urban edge and on small acreage -- such as high value specialty crops or livestock.

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.

“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 and so forth), 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,” concludes Dick Esseks, researcher and the report's lead author.

Funding for the research was provided by a National Research Initiative Grant from USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service Grant #1004-35401-14944). To view the research findings, click here.