Down on the Farm

As an economic development strategy, agriculture usually looks like a loser.
October 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

I've been spending a lot of time in Washington's Puyallup Valley lately. Thanks to the flows from nearby Mt. Rainier, the Puyallup Valley, which is 35 miles south of Seattle, is fertile ground, traditionally an agricultural center for flowers and bulbs. With the metropolitan area encroaching, however, there's a vigorous debate among farmers, developers, and government agencies about the future of farming in the area.

As the outside land-use expert, my job is to help all these parties figure out how to preserve farmland, even while accommodating development and allowing landowners to realize their financial goals. But the question that keeps coming up is not how. It's why.

The longtime farmers say they're losing money. Even the organic farmers, who are making money, fear that proximity to urban development -- and the complaints that arise -- will drive them out of business. The farmland is worth far, far more for development than for farming. So why save it? Is there an economic development purpose to farmland preservation?

This debate is being played out in counties all across America. As an economic development strategy, agriculture usually looks like a loser. It consumes enormous amounts of land, which is far more valuable in the marketplace if it is used for something else. It employs few people, often on a seasonal basis and at very low wages. And it creates low value-added products.

If this sounds like the kind of industry that should have moved to the Third World a long time ago, well, that's happening, too. American growers are being undercut on various products by growers elsewhere in the world. Agricultural imports total $5 billion a year.

If you look at the farmland issue from a macro perspective, it doesn't look like much of a problem. The United States still has more than 900 million acres of agricultural land -- about 40 percent of the country. We're still the biggest agricultural producer in the world, and we actually export $10 billion in agricultural products each year. At this point, that's twice as much as we import.

The battlegrounds on this issue are not in farm states such as Iowa, but in places such as the Puyallup Valley. That is where the metropolitan growth machine is putting traditional farming out of business.

There was a time, of course, when farming was not only one of our biggest business sectors but also one of our biggest employers. Today, it's still big business and produces considerable economic output, but it employs a relatively small number of people compared with other business sectors.

There also was a time when agriculture was a major engine of urban economic development. Transporting and processing food -- still big business today -- could form the basis of an entire metropolitan area's economy.

No more. With landholdings sized in the dozens or hundreds of acres rather than thousands -- and usually no heirs willing to take on the task -- farmers on the metropolitan fringe are selling out. Most have little interest in continuing to farm even if local politicians and environmentalists want them to. In many cases, they no longer have the labor force they need because of changing immigration policy.

Still, farmland preservation is a strong state or local policy in many locations. The arguments in favor are almost never economic in nature. Rather, local residents often favor farmland protection over subdivision development because they think it will reduce traffic and maintain their community's traditional lifestyle even though they often complain about the noise and smells from farm operations. Environmentalists argue that organic farming can be economically successful because of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture, a new trend in which local residents contract with local farmers for food.

The newest argument -- made increasingly around the nation -- is the concept of "food security." Buying fruits and vegetables from South America is all right for now, the argument goes, but you don't want to surrender America's capacity to grow food, which could lead to fighting "food wars" in the decades ahead.

It may well be that in the information age, it is important for the United States to protect its agricultural capacity even though we import a lot of food -- just as it may be important to protect our manufacturing capacity even though we import a lot of goods. But as with urban industrial land, when it comes to farmland, what's good for the nation may not be good for a local community. At least not in economic terms.