Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Windfall for Kane County farmers

Despite dwindling financial resources, Kane County looks like it will devote between $1.6 million and $2 million to farmland preservation this year...

Kane has preserved about 3,000 acres of farmland since 2000 by buying development rights on the land.

The county pays the landowner as much as $5,000 an acre for those rights. (source: Elgin Courier 4/14/06)
Do the math, and that's up to $15M given to Kane farmers for farmland preservation. I can't help but wonder whether such a policy is actually wise. I love farmland, and I like the idea of preserving farmland. But there's just something that makes me uneasy about this idea of the county buying development rights. And I'm not even sure why I'm uneasy.

One thing I'm concerned about is what farmland actually means. When the county buys "development" rights, does that mean that any subdivision of the farmland is prohibited? I think that subdividing farmland into smaller farms would be a positive. In my view, the more smaller farms there are around here the better.

Smaller farms are much more likely to raise speciality crops or organic livestock, produce artisanal cheeses and so on, all of which can be brought to market in Elgin or other farmer's markets in the Fox Valley. If we had a farmer's market with products like that, it would be a huge draw. A lot of successful downtown revitalization efforts coalesced around such public markets.

Large farms are very unlikely to engage in any of these activities, because they view themselves as agribusinesses that produce commodity products: corn, soybeans, etc. But if these farms were divided into smaller farms, farmettes or even one-acre four-acre homesteads, the mentality and philosophy of these farmers would be completely different. They would be much more oriented towards the consumer markets directly east of them, and produce the kind of specialty products that are in high and increasing demand due to the nation's new obsession--courtesy of cable tv's Food Network--with cuisine and "slow food."

Small farms in Kane County would allow us to--for the first time in a long time--tie local agriculture into Elgin's economy. I think even people in Chicago would flock to Elgin if we could pull that off. Elgin's proximity to agricultural land has always been one of the things I liked best about Elgin.

But so far, we have been unable to make that proximity felt. If you go to Elgin's Harvest Market now, you wouldn't get the sense that Elgin is next to an agricultural region. There just aren't a lot of products being brought to market by area farmers.

The problem is that the area farmers are too big. They have big farms and they produce commodities, not products that can be sold at the local farmer's market. Any policy that will allow these big farms to be broken up into small farms would be a big positive in my view.

I wonder whether the county's policy of buying development rights will make it harder to do this. How would the county define a one-acre four-acre homestead or farmette? Would that fit their definition of agriculture or would they say it's residential and hence prohibited development?


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