Why should we worry about preserving agricultural lands? The image of the farmer and family working the land and reaping its rewards of fresh produce and a wholesome quality of life is a part of our national identity. Most don’t know why it could disappear. Forty acres and a mule was the ‘American Dream’ before it be- came a ranchette-house in a suburb, in the mid-20th century.
The 2007 census of Agriculture reported that Florida has 47,500 farms, with an average size of 195 acres. With an average net income reported at $47,790 per farm, it is understandable why more than half of the owners claim farming as secondary in- come. Eighty-seven percent of farms are owned by individuals or families.
Despite Southeast Florida’s longer growing season, many farm- ers argue that trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) put US farmers at a competitive disadvantage for selling food products in their own local market, putting the business at risk. Comparing cash income per year for Florida using the USDA’s historic statistics, there is not a significant reduction of agricultural income since NAFTA was adopted, however this argument may hold true for certain products, such as tomatoes.
Historically it has been shown that even with productive lands close to a strong market (Brooklyn NY in the late 1800s); agricultural lands are at risk from development pressures. When a farmer decides to sell the land, developers tend to pay a better price if they can build on the land and/or sell real estate to others. So which counties in Florida are the top two producers of agricultural products? According to the 2007 census, Palm Beach County and Miami Dade Counties, the two most populous counties of the seven-county region with the strongest pressures for urban development.
To help the farmers, some municipalities have increased land development rights with the idea to increase their borrowing potential. The new rights have unusual constraints that at the time of adoption sound unlikely for a developer to actually implement. But then developers do buy the land and actually build with those restricted entitlements. The spillover effect is that the new residents get frustrated with farm noises, odors, and farm vehicles on the roadways with no stores or services for miles. This begins a cycle of driving agriculture out of an area that remains under a rural or agricultural zoning.
Many participants at the Seven50 workshops expressed that it doesn’t seem wise to lose all of our agricultural lands solely be- cause of today’s market conditions, Because then we will never again be able to grow our food closer to home should some future global occurrence, such as a drastic increase in transportation costs, make foreign-grown food unobtainable.
Strategies are always changing and require the farmers and regulators to remain flexible. To learn more, we can start with studies from the University of Florida, and the Florida Department of Agriculture who recommend strategies to save open lands and promote environmentally sustainable farming practices to reduce the pollution to the ecosystem. The Palm Beach County Agricultural Reserve Master Plan and St. Lucie County’s Towns, Villages and Countryside chapter of their local comprehensive plan outline various strategies that had been researched specifically for our region.