Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Back-40 Becomes Backyard in Michigan, Officials Seek Ways to Preserve Prime Farmland from Urban Sprawl

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Back-40 Becomes Backyard in Michigan, Officials Seek Ways to Preserve Prime Farmland from Urban Sprawl

Article excerpt

WEARY of police sirens, leash laws, and other trappings of city life, urbanites here in Michigan and across the country are building homes in corn fields and grassy meadows.

While this exodus may be inevitable in a country rooted in the pioneer spirit, some agricultural experts warn that rural development is squandering a priceless resource: farmland.

According to the US Department of Agriculture's National Resource Inventory, developed land increased 14 million acres from 1982 to 1992, of which 4 million were considered to be prime soil.

"This is not a lot of land on the national scale, but you have to look at where it is," says Deborah Bowers, editor of a newsletter called the Farmland Preservation Report. "Whole regions are being eaten up, whole counties."

One such area is Webster Township, 50 miles southwest of Detroit in Washtenaw County, Mich.

Here, bulldozers are as common as tractors. Property taxes have exploded in the last 10 years, residents say, and developers are offering farmers up to $10,000 an acre for their land: almost 10 times what it could fetch for farming.

"There ain't no money in farming anymore," says Ted Laskey, who now sells firewood near a busy road here. "It makes more sense to grow houses now than it does crops."

Although a 1974 Michigan law offers a property-tax break for farmers who agree not to sell their land for development, participation in the program has declined since 1992.

Because agriculture is a $37 billion business in Michigan - second only to the automobile industry - Gov. John Engler has commissioned a task force to study ways to preserve farmland.

David Skjaerlund, task-force coordinator, says that in Southeastern Michigan alone, 14 to 30 percent of farm acreage has been lost in the last 10 years. In the same period, a 6 percent increase in population has led to a 40 percent increase in development. Mr. Skjaerlund says this fantastically high rate of conversion reflects the fact that new developments are far larger than their predecessors, with individual homesites covering five to 10 acres, rather than one or two.

The urban exodus has made farming more difficult here. Once quiet country roads now teem with traffic, making it difficult to transport sluggish tractors and combines. Power shortages are frequent, and some residential neighbors don't like the smell of livestock, or object to farmers spraying their fields with pesticides.

In addition, as more farmers leave their districts, support systems go with them, Skjaerlund says, leaving farmers to drive 30 to 40 miles to sell their grains or buy supplies.

This summer, in a highly publicized case of citizen initiative, residents of Traverse City, Mich., approved a $2.5-million bond referendum to protect cherry orchards on the nearby Mission Peninsula. …

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