The Other Side of Sprawl: A County-Level Analysis of Farm Loss in Florida

Article excerpt

Even as ex-urban population growth has shifted attention to possible economic revitalization, rural communities in the U.S. continue to exhibit long-standing trends of agricultural decline. This article focuses on the nature and extent of farm losses in the rapidly urbanizing state of Florida. It aims to provide a rural perspective on contemporary concerns with urban sprawl, and contrast national-level studies of farm decline with regional understandings. Recent county-level changes in farm proprietorship are measured in terms of the difference in number of farms between 1997 and 2002. This change is related through regression models to four categories of explanatory factors: degree of urbanization, farm operator demographics, economic characteristics, and agrarian land use characteristics. A detailed understanding of agricultural decline is obtained by contrasting variables that significantly affect likelihood of farm loss across all counties with those that influence magnitude of farm loss among counties experiencing decline.

KEY WORDS: agriculture, farm loss, urbanization, regression, Florida


Urban sprawl has evolved as a key environmental and policy concern in the U.S. and its effects have recently extended into rural communities. Studies on urban sprawl are thus increasingly focusing on ex urbanization, defined as low-density residential growth in rural areas situated at longer commuting distances from urban and suburban centers (Manson and Groop 2000; Theobald 2001). Processes of exurbanization are viewed as being fueled by urban residents seeking a rural quality of life, though not necessarily wanting to participate in agriculture, and by developers who both produce and fulfill such desires (Walker and Fortmann 2003; Whitelegg 2005; Flint 2006). It has been argued that ex-urban growth can help stem population loss and promote economic development in otherwise declining farm communities (McGranahan 1999; Whitener 2005). While this argument emphasizes new employment and property values that can be derived from natural amenities (Nelson 1999; McDaniel 2001; Shumway and Otterstrom 2001; McGranahan and Beale 2003), existing agrarian livelihoods and their patterns of change also need to be examined to provide a more comprehensive picture of how the rural landscape is changing.

Since the farm financial crisis of the 1980s (Barnett 2002), only a limited number of empirical studies have examined declines in farm proprietorships in the U.S. Goetz and Debertin (2001) estimated a county-level model of net farm exit rates between 1987 and 1997, while Hoppe and Korbe (2006) determined exit probabilities using longitudinal data on individual farms from 1978 to 1997. As these studies are national in scope and utilize information from previous decades, there is a growing need to understand and document the factors affecting more recent losses in farm proprietorships, as well as declines in particular regions and states of the U.S. Regional and local studies, however, have tended to focus on the politics of ex-urbanization, especially in terms of conflicts between existing rural residents and new urban migrants (Ackerman 1999; Crump 2003; Lindstrom and Bartling 2003; Walker 2003). An examination of the characteristics of farms associated with communities facing agricultural decline can thus provide an empirical basis for understanding the processes underlying social protests associated with suburban and ex-urban sprawl.

This study focuses on Florida and there are three reasons why this state becomes a particularly significant location for the study of farm losses. First, the emphasis on Florida extends current concerns with rural populations beyond the U.S. West, the latter being a widely studied region in terms of non-metropolitan development (Shumway and Davis 1996; Cromartie and Wardwell 1999; Beyers and Nelson 2000; Foreman 2005). Second, urban sprawl is a key concern within Florida (e. …