The “new agriculture” is typically small-acreage, intensively-managed, organic (in contemporary terms) in that it avoids both chemical use and genetic modification, and uniquely adaptable to such practices as niche-market services, consumer associations (community-sharing) and pick-your-own. One could argue that it won’t supplant present-day large-scale commercial generic-commodity agriculture any time soon. But one should also recognize that, if industry observers are correct in gauging the size of this producer-to-consumer sector at 20% of the total, then, logically, rural land-use planning ought to be moving to recognize this “new normal” and providing for it in statute and regulation.
Just the opposite seems to be happening. The so-called “Smart-Growth” doctrine, opposed to traditional low-density suburban development for both residential and commercial land use, now seems to favor smaller lots for residential and commercial use. No more wooded and lawned exurban campuses for business, manufacturing, or research; no more large-lot trophy-house-or-less subdivisions, but very large indeed minimum lot sizes in beyond-the-new-city-wall farmland.
In Oregon, for example, the minimum farm-lot size is 80 to 160 acres, and is described in various studies of Oregon’s land use laws as the smallest presently acceptable to the State Land Conservation and Development Commission. The same regulatory body calls for a minimum residential lot size of 20 acres for areas beyond the adopted Urban Growth Boundaries, “…to help contain Oregon’s growing urban population inside the growth boundaries”. Similar regulations in Illinois and Pennsylvania call for 40 and 50-acre minimum farm-lot sizes. And these lots come with residential prohibitions. In Oregon, for example according to The Cascade Policy Institute, there’s a State regulation “…requiring a piece of property zoned as high-value farmland to generate $80,000 in annual sales before a dwelling can be built for the farmer.”
Translated this to a generic-commodity crop like corn, more typically associated with large-scale commercial farming than with small-acreage mini-farms. The 80 acres, if farmed to match the recent new-high national average yield of 160 bushels per acre, and selling at a recent $6 per bushel,, would be generating 160 x $6 x 80, or $76,800.
This means that a typical Midwestern Corn Belt corn-grower wouldn’t be welcome as a new resident in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a notably gentrified rural district comparable in size and population (not counting the urban populations) to such enclaves as Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and, some would argue, the entire State of Vermont. The Willamette Valley is well-known in oenophile circles for its more-valuable-than-corn bottled product. A vineyard operator with an 80-acre operation there would easily meet the $80,000 (that’s a gross of $1,000/acre) threshold benchmark and be permitted (literally) to build a house for the owner.
Whether operators of mini-farms in the ¼ to 10-acre range (as defined by the titles of advisory books which offer author advice on “X Acres and Independence”) can generate $1,000 per acre depends on, among other factors, production choice. Pastured beef is certainly less likely than row-crop broccoli.
Judging by the percent of all farms, large to small, which are reported by the USDA to derive some 90% of household income from off-farm non-farm jobs, a safe guess for mini-farmers as a sub-group would be “not likely”. And even if they could gross $1,000 per acre, doing so on, say, five acres (a guessed-at average; we have no official stats, although the USDA tells the that the 0-50 acre category is increasing) doesn’t suggest economic “independence” in comparison to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics stats for median US household income in the $50,000 range.
And, of course, if there are any mini-farms in the 80-acre size, they would be extremely few in number and far off on the right-hand side of the size-distribution bell curve. That’s for another reason: labor.
All the qualities associated with “the new agriculture” indicate more intensive management time and effort than for more traditional, large-lot commodity agriculture, with its dependence on 10- and 12-row equipment to enable a single operator with minimal help to produce at large scale, The typical mini-farm operator-plus-household simply couldn’t apply the same level of intensive management at an 80+acre level as they can at the ever-more-widely-practiced 5-acre level. With the exception of some designed-specifically-for-small-operations equipment like cultivators and harvesters (and sold mostly to Third World operators), there’s no equipment yet invented to replace the grower touch in dealing with any produce from flowers and table crops.
Oregon’s farm-zoning requirements — not less than 80 acres in farm size, not less than $80,000 in annual gross revenues; add in the built-in labor question — all seem specifically designed to prevent mini-farm-based rural land use practices, and to encourage instead a more limited range of larger-scale choices. These range from commercial-scale vineyards, to mechanizeable operations like sod and organic wheat, and relatively low-labor-requirements-per-acre operations like beef grazing, All of the above are hardly do-able, economically, at the typical small-acreage scale of the usual mini-farm. The question then becomes the reasoning behind the State government’s land-use-management decision.
Two possibilities, seemingly improbable but both historically based, come to mind.
One posits the competition-prevention scenario; the concern over loss of control of any part of the eventual consumer dollar. “New Ag” and its mini-farms have, over the last two or three decades, raised their “market share” from insignificant to, some observers claim, as much as 20%.In this view, any new farm-stand just outside the “urban growth boundary” is a dollar-for-dollar challenge to the established retailers, distributors, and processors, and even the commodity brokers and buyers in the business chain that ends at the already-established retail check-out counter well within the “urban growth boundary”.
In recent history, this concern first showed up in Vermont in the ‘70s, when grocery-chain lobbyists attended a raw-milk-ban proposal hearing in force to proclaim that their only concern was “public health” and that, for consumer safety, all milk should be legally required to move from farm to home through their channels alone. Across the nation now, as do-it-yourself or sell-to-neighbors enterprises such as urban poultry flocks or home-baked pies at farmers markets show, legal attempts at prevention (supposedly on behalf of consumer health, but more evidently on behalf of food retailers, almost universally) now take place. For states to respond to industry lobbying pressures for new rural-land-use planning supposedly for preservation of farmland, but actually for preservation of market share, would not be an unreasonable speculation.
The other posits a tilt towards favoring land acquisition by a wealthier and more gentrified sector of society, as opposed to the sorts of folks who established small-acreage live-off-the-land communes and collectives in the ‘60s. Setting the cost-of-entry and cost-of-stay high enough encourages the former and discourages the latter, precisely as large-lot residential zoning (and even minimum-house-size requirements) did in the more self-consciously exclusive Northeastern suburbs in the '70s.
Seen in that light, an 80-acre rule which works well for private-label vineyards and not well for self-sufficiency home-steaders, organic or otherwise, makes some logical sense. Just as different jurisdictions adopt different residential lot (and housing) sizes, it’s probable that some States will pursue the Oregon 80-acre farm-lot model and some won’t. But the economic purchasing power of the consuming 20% now eager to buy organic veggies at farmers’ markets won’t go away.
Expect some insufficiently-successful vineyard operator near Portland to sub-divide his eighth-section (a little archaic surveyor’s lingo, there; the Homestead Act of 1862 prescribed operation of 160-acre quarter-sections) into 15 little 5-acre leased farmettes, at a total ground rent high enough for the $80,000 annual-revenue permit to build his own mini-mansion on the 16th.
Flickr Photo by Rick Skully: Uphill view of Four Springs Farm, Windsor County, Vermont. At the top of the photo is the outdoor kitchen.
Martin Harris is a Princeton graduate in architecture and urban planning with a range of experience in fields ranging from urban renewal and air-industrial parks to the trajectory of small-town planning and zoning in states like Vermont.