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Sprawling from sea to shining sea

By Charles Francis
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Nov. 15, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In the Midwest we live in wide-open spaces. Most prairie has given way to fields of corn, wheat and soybeans, and the range land to improved pastures. But we still seem to have plenty of space. Visitors from Europe proclaim, "What a huge and empty country this is!"

Europeans have learned over centuries to protect farmland. What these visitors don't see easily is the accelerating conversion of our open farm and range land to development. They also don't see the prohibitive land prices that make it next to impossible for new farmers to get started.

Across the country, we now convert rural land to suburban small acreages, housing developments, malls, roads and industrial uses at a rate unprecedented in our history. American Farmland Trust reports that close to three acres are converted to non-agricultural use every minute. In a year this adds up to 2,464 square miles, a square almost 50 miles to the side. The per capita land area for non-farm activities is at least 50 percent higher than before 1980.

Tammy Zimmerman, whose family raises swine, corn and soybeans near Beatrice, Neb., said the four farms sold near hers most recently were for a golf course, a hunting farm, a subdivision and a new power plant. Farming can't compete with prices paid for these.

During a year of planning hearings by Nebraska's Lincoln and Lancaster counties, vested interests met and pushed their agendas. Homebuilders and environmental groups were especially active. Among the least organized participants were farmers. And most farmers who testified were concerned about how new zoning would affect their gains from land sales -- not how to preserve farmland.

Part of why they don't want to continue farming is the incredible increase in land values due to speculation. In fact, there is no part of the two counties where land values are based on agriculture potential. The basis is development potential. David Goeller, University of Nebraska farm transition specialist, says land prices are up because of low interest rates, a poor stock market, new federal farm programs and tax advantages for property transfers.

When my wife and I were on sabbatical to Norway in 1998, we saw how our cousins in northern Europe have found how to solve or at least minimize this problem of sprawl. They establish permanent green belts around cities. I asked when the forage field behind our house in Ås would be developed, given shortages of housing near the university in a town of 8,000. I got a blank stare: "But that's farmland, of course. It will always be that way."

In Norway and Sweden all people have access to private forest land, even without permission, as long as they do not take or leave anything - this based on common law going back more than 1,000 years. The entire Norwegian coastline is public domain. I have found that there is much to learn from other systems and cultures.

We can explore alternatives to the United States' urban sprawl through education. Each spring the University of Nebraska offers a course called Urbanization of Rural Landscapes. It is taught in evenings so community members as well as students can attend. We study the statistics of sprawl, and examine places in California and Pennsylvania where the challenges are even greater than in Nebraska. Students explore the long-term effects of unchecked urban growth, and consider alternatives based on models from innovative communities in the United States and elsewhere. Prairie Crossing, clustered housing in Gray's Lake, Ill., is a model for preserving prairie and farmland around homes.

Through such plans, we can make people more aware of effects of our individual and community investments and decisions. The loss of land could be called the result of a "tyranny of many small decisions" from which a few people profit, and after which public open space and farmland disappear. We hope education can make a difference, and we can look to other places, such as Europe, for solutions developed over centuries of experience.

Charles Francis is a professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor of several books. He is founder and co-editor of "Our Sustainable Future" a book series from University of Nebraska Press. Francis is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture organization in Salina, Kan.

This essay is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Land Institute. The institute reserves the right to reprint Prairie Writers Circle work in its own publications and Web site.