Perhaps no image is more emblematic of the changing West then an old barn surrounded by field of new houses. The irony in the image, of course, is that as residential development invades the West the agricultural land with its open space and wildlife habitat that draws people here is compromised.
“What will happen if you lose us?” asked southwestern Montana rancher Jim Hagenbarth. “The last crop we plant will be a subdivision. It will destroy all the habitat that we’ve worked to preserve.”
Hagenbarth spoke as part of a panel discussion on how to preserve working farms and ranches in face of mounting development pressure at NewWest.Net’s 3rd Annual Real Estate and Development Conference in the Northern Rockies in Missoula, Mont. on Friday.
The challenge, said Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition’s Paul Hubbard, is to find ways for farmers and ranchers to make a living on the land and, in a state where the average age of farmers is over 55, to help the next generation of farmers find land.
CFAC recently launched its Land Link Montana program which helps connect people seeking land to farm with landowners who want to lease or sell their land for agricultural use.
One possible boon for farmers is the recent rapid rise in consumer demand for local food. Local food reduces transportation cost and middlemen, which ensures farmers and ranchers receive more money for their products. And it provides consumers with fresher, healthier food, Hubbard claims.
“One of the things we’ve learned from working in these markets is that demand already outstrips supply,” Hubbard said. Which makes the preservation of agricultural lands all the more urgent. In Missoula County, less than two percent of all lands are classified as prime irrigated agricultural land, much of which has already been developed or is slated for development.
Near the development pressure, farmers “need to adapt to higher value crops,” said Big Sandy, Mont. organic farmer Bob Quinn. More farmers need to shift their focus from growing commodity crops for national and international markets using extensive federal subsidies to make a profit and instead grow diversified crops for local markets.
“There is more than one way to farm, despite what the chemical companies say,” said Quinn, who raises potatoes, onions, tomatoes, winter sqush, lentils, heritage varities of corn, wheat and barely, all without the use of irrigation.
Many developers now recognize the value of working farmland as a marketing tool for their residential developments and have begun to incorporate ways to protect farmland in their developments. Jennifer Zung, of Harmony Design & Engineering, a Teton County Idaho based-firm that specializes in environmentally-sensitive development. Her firm takes land that would be otherwise subdivided and looks for ways to maintain at least 50 percent as open space. Increasingly this open space is maintained as a farm, often raising products for sale in the local community. For example, at the Sleepy Hollow development in Felt, Idaho, they clustered 18 houses between a protected riparian area and 160 acres of working farmland. Her developers also realize what ranchers like Hagenbarth have long known — that some farming or ranching of a subdivision’s open space is essential for weed management.
Besides the now familiar conservation easement that pays a landowner to keep his or her land out of development, another similar and potent tool is the transfer of development rights, Zung said. Under this scenario a landowner can sell the development rights on his or her land to another landowner with land more suitable for development.
Hagenbarth, however, noted one shortcoming of tools like conservation easements. While they provide solvency for the current landowner, they are a one-time deal that provides little and restricts options for future owners, such as his children.