You Can't Grown Corn on Asphalt
Farmers vs. developers in the '70s
During the 1970s, the question was, Who will protect the farmer from the developer? Like so many environmentalist jeremiads from the 1970s, this one proved—ahem—premature. We didn't know it yet, but the real question for the future was, Who will protect Illinois ecosystems, the U.S. treasury, and the Gulf of Mexico from the farmer?
That is not to say that urbanization is not eating up land. In the piece I noted that some 50,000 people lived in McHenry County and 90 per cent of its land was being farmed, and that by 1980 or so the estimated population was 135,000 and barely two-thirds of the county survived as farmland. By 2020 the county's population was in 308,000 and only 55 percent of its land was in agriculture use.
I addressed these issues in other pieces during this periods, but they are all the same piece, really. As usual, the rush to get it ready to print left the original a little rough in spots; this version smooths them out a bit.
America's appetite for land is nearly as insatiable as its appetite for food, and its dwindling supply of farmland has been feeding both. The number of farmland acres converted every year in the U.S. into shopping centers, superhighways, subdivisions, and parks exceeds one million. This loss, especially that part of it consisting of the prime soils on which American agriculturalists grow crops of grain unsurpassed anywhere in the world, has only recently been thought of as a problem, however. It wasn't until world food reserves dried up as a result of three years of drought in the early 1970s that some experts—planners, farmers, farm economists—began warning that this 20th century land grab had to be stopped.
Much of the world has come to depend on American grain, and much of America's grain is grown in Illinois. The arithmetic of farmland conversion in Illinois is disquieting. The annual survey by the Cooperative Crop Reporting Service shows that farmland in the state is being paved, flooded, strip-mined, and sodded over at an average annual rate of 100,000 acres. That's 281 acres, or nearly one average-sized Illinois farm, every day, seven days a week. In seventeen years Illinois's farmland inventory has shrunk from 30.7 to 29 million acres, a loss equivalent to eight average-sized counties.
Many if not most of those acres were prime soils. The same qualities that make some land good for farming—gentle slope and good drainage, for instance—also make it perfect for developments ranging from home sites to airports. According to the state's Soil Conservation Service (SCS), fully 90 per cent of Illinois farmland is "prime," meaning it falls into the top two or three categories of soil classification used to grade soils—the best there is. Some nine per cent of all such prime soils in the U.S. lies between Illinois's borders.
Such soils are irreplaceable. Vital topsoils in particular are not merely root media but living organisms—a ecosystem really—in which the soil's porosity, subsoil micro-organisms, mineral content, depth, and other factors combine to form a near-perfect growing environment. Illinois topsoils took centuries to produce, but they can be destroyed in a day. Once uprooted by construction or mining or interred by asphalt, prime soils become just so much dirt.
Loss of farmland
If current rates of loss continue unabated, another eight counties' worth of farmland will be gone by the turn of the century. One recent study shows that 18,000 acres a year are lost to forest, 19,000 to mining (including strip mining of coal), 64,000 to parks and reservoirs (much of the latter is rough or "broken" land but some farmable bottomland acres are also flooded), 80,000 to large-lot rural residences, 84,000 to subdivisions, 83,000 for new industrial and commercial development, and 52,000 for miscellaneous uses such as highways. The 1,300-mile Illinois interstate highway system alone has eaten up 48,000 acres of land since its first mile was laid in 1957. And it is an incontrovertible biological fact that, although it's possible to ship corn on an interstate, it's not possible to grow it on one.
Farmers have been able to keep several steps ahead of the drop in farmland by raising more food on the acres that are left. This they've done by planting more productive hybrids, irrigating dry land, using bigger and more efficient machinery and lots of fertilizers, and, especially in recent years, by plowing under pasture and rough land once thought too poor to farm. It is no longer possible in some districts to talk literally about planting hedgerow to hedgerow, because the hedgerows have been bulldozed out and planted with corn or beans.
Cost of cultivation
The cost of bringing every square yard of Illinois fields under cultivation is high. Among other effects, such intensive exploitation of land strips it of wildlife cover, with disastrous results for native animal populations. It also leaves more acres vulnerable to soil erosion, which in Illinois accounts for an estimated 80 per cent of the silt clogging streams and reservoirs. Worse, farmers are close to exhausting the productive potentials of their marginal lands. They must increasingly do with the land they have, and that is less and less.
Jeff Idelman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, explains. "According to population projections prepared by the state Bureau of the Budget, Illinois's nine major metropolitan areas will experience continued growth. The total additional acreage the BOB figures will be needed to accommodate that expansion between 1970 and 1980 is 64,000 acres. They'll require another 120,000 acres between 1980 and 1990 and another 272,00 acres on top of that between 1990 and 2000." Idelman summarized the outlook. "There is no reason to expect that the demand for agricultural land for non-agricultural uses will slow down." And because cities themselves tend to be built on flat, fertile soils, urban expansion doesn't merely destroy land, it tends to destroy the best land. Thirty-nine per cent of the U.S. farmland converted to non-farm uses between 1967 and 1975 was prime land, even though only 25 per cent of the country's privately held land falls into that classification.
This situation troubles many farm professionals, including Harold Dodd, president of the Illinois Farmers Union. "I think the food shortages a few years ago woke people up to the need to protect our production capacity in this country. Consider the fact that it took a million years for the world population to get to one billion, just eighty years to reach two billion, only thirty-four years to hit three billion and just sixteen years to reach four billion. We've got projections that show that the population will be eight billion by the year 2012. With those kinds of facts in mind, we think it behooves all of us to preserve all the farmland we can, to leave something for the next generation to eat on."
That argument has its roots as much in economics as humanitarianism. American farm products account for the largest single share of this country's exports; without them, the farm economy would shrivel and the balance-of-payments deficits, already ballooned by our appetite for foreign oil, would swell even more disastrously. Locally, Illinois farm exports earn the state's farmers some $3 billion yearly. Illinois fields produced more corn and more soybeans than any other state in 1976, and Illinois was second only to California (whose climate makes it a year-around food factory) in the value of its farm crops.
James D. Williams, writing in Illinois Research, noted last fall that Illinoisans, like Americans generally, are fleeing the big cities, a trend evident for some years. The suburbs adjacent to urban centers have stopped their headlong growth of the 1960s because they ran out of land; the highest population growth rates in Illinois between 1970 and 1975 were recorded in the state's non-metropolitan counties beyond the last suburb.
Urbanization, in short, is encroaching on the black dirt fields of rural Illinois. This is nothing new, of course. The conversion of farm to suburb, suburb to city is a cycle that's turned through a century and a half of Illinois history. As one geographer notes by way of illustration, the present city of Chicago is itself an amalgamation of suburbs. What is new is the economic and ecological costs of such expansion.
Nowhere is the cost in land of suburbanization more evident than in the so-called collar counties around Chicago. The SCS has estimated that, in the twenty years between 1954 and 1974, total farm acreage in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area dropped by 400,000 acres, or 27 per cent—an area equal in size to downstate Logan County. Counties like Lake and DuPage, which were predominantly rural as recently as World War II, are now almost entirely urban in character. Speaking of Lake County, one farm expert said, "It's hopeless. It's pretty much gobbled up."
Neighboring McHenry County hasn't yet been gobbled up, but developers have been nibbling at its southeastern corner for years. McHenry County is wedged between Cook County's northern border and the Wisconsin state line and is tied to Chicago's Loop forty miles away by U.S. 14 and the Northwestern's commuter rail line. Its biggest town is the county seat of Woodstock (population 11,000). Thirty years ago, some 50,000 people lived in McHenry County and 90 per cent of its land was being farmed. The 1978 population has been estimated at 135,000, and barely two-thirds of the county survives as farmland.
The process of suburbanization in McHenry County differs from what happened in Lake and DuPage counties only in its tardiness. A 1946 zoning ordinance still in effect, though amended last July to reduce the potential for abuse, allows construction of homes on lots five acres or larger without county approval. Towns like McHenry and Crystal Lake have grown, but many of the immigrants from Chicago pass the towns by for houses in the country. "Even when there are lots available in the towns," notes one resident, "they'd do things like build new subdivisions in between towns that were eight miles apart." Such scattershot development makes it hard to provide police and fire protection. It also consumes large chunks of farmland.
Looking for ways to slow down such sprawl, members of the McHenry county board last year drew up an ordinance that, if passed, would require county zoning approval before construction of any house on a parcel of and smaller than 35 acres. The scheme was first adopted in 1973 in Blackhawk County, Iowa, in the heart of corn country. Such large lot requirements do not outlaw rural residential development. They do, however, make it unattractively expensive. The 35-acre limit typically coupled with a provision limiting the impact of the ordinance to prime farmlands only.
One of the organizations backing the proposed ordinance is the McHenry County Farm Bureau. Director Larry Harris explains why. "In 1967, 264,000 acres in the county were cropland. In 1974 we had only 226,000 acres. That's a pretty sizable drop." Harris goes on. "The eastern part of the county is already nearly taken over by urbanization. The western half is still mostly rural. We want to protect what's left. We're not against growth. We know that there's going to be growth. We just want that growth to take place in an orderly manner."
Resistance to planning
In the past, farmers were among the more vocal opponents of planning and county zoning. That's beginning to change, and though it's difficult to measure, it seems likely that farmer resentment is a factor in the change. Scattered residential development typically isolates farm acres so that commercial farming, though still physically possible, often no longer economically feasible. City people often bring city problems to the country. Pressures for better schools, better roads, more services rise with the population. Much of the bill for such services is paid with property taxes, and farmers, being by far the biggest property owners, end up carrying most of the load. Traditional political balances change, too, as does the tenor of rural life.
Still, suburbanization has its rewards. Some farmers have financed expansion by selling some of their land to developers at subdivision prices, then using the proceeds to buy cheaper farmland elsewhere. In fact, it was reported that the enactment of Blackhawk County's 35-acre ordinance angered some of the local farmers it was intended to protect. It seemed they were afraid that developers would quit paying those fat prices for their farmland.
Two hundred and twenty-five miles south of McHenry County is Sangamon County, home of the capital city, Springfield. Springfield's major industry is government, but that of surrounding Sangamon County is agriculture. Of its 563,000 acres, 78 per cent are used for farming, mostly of row crops like corn and soybeans. In 1969, only seven counties in the entire U.S. produced more corn than Sangamon, and only six produced more beans.
But what is happening in McHenry County is also happening in Sangamon County. It has lost 31,000 acres of farmland between 1969 and 1974 alone, enough that the problem has begun to engage the attentions of local planners. The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission adopted a new land use plan in February. On the list of a half-dozen planning goals set forth in the plan is an injunction to "protect and preserve Class I and II agricultural lands," prime lands that comprise 97 per cent of the county's surviving farm acreage. The goal represents a major change for the agency, which only recently recognized that "agricultural land is not an infinite resource." The plan commits the county to the preservation of every remaining acre of its prime soils.
The end decided upon, the perplexing question of means arises. One important step has already been taken by state government. The explosion of farmland values in recent years led to rises in assessed valuations which in turn resulted in crippling property tax bills. A new formula for assessing farmland became law in June. Public Act 80-247 takes into account not merely the market value of farmland—the old standard measure—but also its productivity. In effect, agricultural land is assessed according to its value as farmland and not just as real estate. The change is expected to ameliorate farmland assessments and thus help ease the financial pressures on some farmers who were being taxed into selling their land.
Before the new law was passed, Illinois allowed farmland to be assessed as farmland and not according to its "highest and best use." The dual assessment law helped farmers in developing areas to avoid having to pay subdivision taxes on a farmer's income. But only a few counties used it. Rural counties didn't need it, and in many urban counties like Sangamon, where prime farmland now sells for as much as $4,200 an acre, there was little difference between the value a farmer put on land and its worth to a developer. As one local official remarked, "You don't do much speculating at $4,000 an acre."
At the local level, zoning remains a potent weapon in the battle to save farmland. The Sangamon County plan, for example, suggests the adoption of zoning laws restricting residential development on prime soils similar to those of Blackhawk County. But agricultural zoning puts farming into competition for land with commercial and residential developers—formidable adversaries. In order to provide more certain protection for threatened lands, state representatives John Lauer (R., Broadwell) and Thomas Ewing (R., Pontiac) last session introduced separate but similar bills authorizing counties to establish agricultural districts.
According to the provisions of the proposed acts (Lauer's H.B. 1719 and Ewing's H.B. 772), an agricultural district may be created by the county board upon the petition of any farm owner who wants his land to be preserved as farmland. Once formed, the district is overseen by a five-person advisory committee. So that land may not be added to the district capriciously, thus impeding legitimate land use changes, the committee would take several factors into consideration, including type of soil, productivity, and location before deciding whether to add or drop land from the district. Any landowner could request that his land be added to the district. Once added, the land would be protected by county guarantee from any nonagricultural use, a protection that would stand if and until the owner asked to withdraw the land from the district.
Lauer, who now works for the Department of Local Government Affairs in Springfield, explains why he introduced the bill: "I was intrigued by the possibilities of this approach. I thought it could do something that I think very much needs to be done." Lauer's old district is mostly rural, but even in Lincoln some valuable land was lost when the state built a new medium-security prison there. "If we don't take steps now," warns Lauer, "we'll wake up twenty-five years from now and say, 'Where did it all go?'" The agricultural districting bills, which in hearings drew support from the state's two biggest farm groups, are still in study committee. Chances of passage in the 81st General Assembly are considered good.
The Sangamon County plan suggests other schemes from land banking to the purchase by the government of farm owners' development rights, an approach being tried in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Connecticut and New York. Says the Farmers Union's Dodd: "I'm not sure that any of us knows the best way to go about it yet. The laws we have might be enough if they were used. But it wasn't until just recently that the cities were even aware of the problem. That's changed now."
Optimism through planning
Changed, too, is the attitude of many farmers toward planners and planning. The groups, antagonists not long ago, have been made allies by the farmland conversion issue. Dodd and other agriculturists were consulted in the drafting of the Sangamon County plan, and farm representatives now sit on regional planning groups in many parts of the state. "It will probably take a combination of approaches," Dodd concludes. "But when I think of the progress that's been made in just the last few years, I'm elated. Just elated." ●
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