Rescuing The First Resource

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Concern over the situation did not seriously develop until after 1957, the peak year of the postwar “baby boom” that had been the impetus for so much urban development. Confronted with the increasingly obvious, states, counties, and even towns scrambled to come up with zoning regulations and other devices that would stem the loss of farmland. Some—as in Oregon, where tough zoning restrictions and heavy tax advantages were instituted—were reasonably effective; others—as in Florida, which may lose all of its prime land in twenty years—were not. Since it was a national problem, it seemed clear, efforts on the national level also would have to be made to solve it. To that end, in June, 1979, the Department of Agriculture and the Council on Environmental Quality, with the participation of other federal agencies, state and local governments, private landholders, and public interest groups, launched the National Agricultural Lands Study to examine the dimensions of the problem and explore solutions.

Then, as a kind of adjunct to that study, a group of interested citizens got together in August, 1980, to form the American Farmland Trust, sponsored by the Conservation Foundation and financed in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Scherman Foundation. Director Douglas P. Wheeler has articulated the organization’s goals: “The principal purpose of AFT is to address the challenge posed by rapid depletion of the nation’s farmland resource, which is being lost to haphazard development at the rate of three million acres a year. As a national, non-profit membership organization, AFT will (1) inform Americans about the gravity of this threat to agricultural equilibrium...and (2) undertake projects, both directly and through affiliated organizations, which demonstrate techniques by which farmland retention can be achieved.”

Whether such studies and organizations can significantly change the perception of farmland as commodity— which has all the weight of history behind it—to one that sees it for what it truly is—a resource—remains to be seen. We will probably know by the end of the century. In the meantime, it might be well to contemplate the implications of a poem which Alien Hildebaugh has tacked to the wall above his desk. The last stanza reads: “Behold the suburbs and their yield:/ Beneath the web of streets is sealed/ The coffin of a fertile field,/ The ghost of unborn grain. ”