Farmers Plant Seeds of Revolt over Sprawl ; as Urban Growth Squeezes out Farmland, Counties Find Ways to Preserve

Article excerpt

Skagit County is renowned for two things: its annual tulip festival and the ubiquitous bumper-sticker slogan "Pavement Is Forever."

In a place where the piny forests and churning streams of the Cascade mountains meet the water of the north Pacific, every emerald acre is seen as an irreplaceable part of the county's identity.

With some of the most fertile land in the United States, Skagit County, Wash., is green with growth practically year-round - from berries to apples to bulbs. And for generations, its farmers have been the primary stewards of the land.

But more and more, Allan Merritt and other local growers are finding themselves in a vise of urban growth from Seattle to the south and Vancouver, B.C., to the north. "We have to gear ourselves for development," says Mr. Merritt, who grows jonagold apples. "You can't stop it; you can only guide it."

For more than 20 years, counties from New York to Washington State have tried to save agricultural land from development. But so far, most programs have met with limited success. According to one survey, some 15 percent of American farmland was lost between 1982 and 1992.

Now, many areas are responding with a raft of laws to curb the spread of mini-malls and megastores. The result is a new momentum to protect not only open space, but farmland specifically. Indeed, with commodity prices low and America's aging corps of farmers nearing retirement, vast amounts of agricultural land set to change hands could be at stake.

"Counties or states need to clarify, if the goal is to maintain farming or open space," says Jeff Daniels, author of "Holding Our Ground: Preserving Farms and Farmland in America." "People don't understand a farm is a business" and needs special considerations.

What's being done

To this end, states, counties, and charities across the US are taking preservation steps:

*Late last year, New Jersey approved a constitutional amendment to earmark $1 billion over the next two years to protect farmland.

*In California's Central Valley, the nation's most endangered farmland, the Packard Foundation has pledged to spend $175 million during the next three years to preserve farms and open space.

*Last month, Maine voters approved a $50 million public-land bond for land conservation.

*Massachusetts recently required buyers of land in agricultural areas to use the lot for farming in an attempt to stop the building of estates.

In fact, voters nationwide have passed 200 initiatives to protect agricultural land, according to a survey by the American Farm Trust.

Although there are several ways to preserve land for farming, purchasing development rights is the most prevalent method. …