Vermont's 'New Agriculture': Mini-Farms and the Urban Boundary

Vermont, Four Springs Farm.jpg

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.


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Cancel the Oregon DLCD; Give Local Cities like Bend More Control

Oregon was once known for its hippies and hobby farmers, who moved north from California in search of cheaper land for organic farms, in the 1960's and 1970's. Unfortunately, this migration has slowed down, due to growth management and resulting rising land costs. Today, it's very expensive to buy increasingly scarce properties of a few acres, in the most desirable places for hobby farms, such as near Ashland or in the Applegate Valley.

And, the Oregon Statewide DLCD Zoning Map has not changed since 1986. Oregon even removed their statewide DLCD map from their web site, yet I have saved it on my site -

It's also very expensive to buy farmland in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland. A recent report from the Sightline Institute of Seattle shows that it's actually easier to buy rural property in Vancouver, Washington, than between Portland and Salem. See map -

It's also ridiculous that the State of Oregon will not allow Bend to expand its urban growth boundary, to accommodate one acre lots, for outdoors enthusiasts who also wish to have backyard organic gardens.

For about seven years, the State of Oregon has repeatedly said no to the City of Bend, who wants to expand its urban growth boundary to accommodate large lots, even preserving natural vegetation (large Ponderosa Pines), as required by Bend City ordinance.

And, whether it's folks in Ashland, Portland, Eugene, Corvallis, or Bend who want to buy property, we're not necessarily talking about developers who will "clearcut" everything in sight, and build 5000 square foot Estates, with ugly "gravelscaping."

Instead, we're talking about the traditional west coast outdoors enthusiasts and tree huggers, who want to move away from overcrowded Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They love trees and the outdoors, and they would simply clear a small area for a hobby farm. Indeed, most newcomers to Bend, Ashland, and Corvallis are from large liberal metro areas on the West Coast, see interactive map of migration patterns from Forbes -

So, these Oregon land use laws are not stopping urban sprawl. Instead, they are stopping many of us who love nature, and only need an acre or two for an organic farm ... from co-existing with a wild bird sanctuary on the same property, since we won't cut down any more trees than necessary to allow 6 to 8 hours of sunlight for veggies.

It's time to eliminate the entire Oregon Growth Management Act. It's time to cancel the entire Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. It's time to start encouraging more organic farmers in Oregon, by allowing cities such as Bend, Corvallis, Eugene, and Ashland ... to set their own rules, and increase their lot sizes to one acre lots, for their very liberal new residents from large coastal cities.

These new liberal residents aren't hurting the environment by establishing nature preserves and organic gardens on their one acre lots. In fact, when these new residents join positions on local governments, they help preserve the environment. For example, in Bend, Oregon, there's a tree ordinance, to protect native Ponderosa Pines. Indeed, Bend has become more "liberal" in the past few decades, due to liberal newcomers from Seattle, Portland, Eugene, and coastal California.

For Oregon with its great climate for organic farming, local control is superior to statewide control. People move to the aforementioned small towns in Oregon, since they want to be surrounded by nature. Establishing organic gardens on one acre lots, with dozens if not hundreds of flower and vegetable species, will increase the diversity of birds and butterflies. Oregon does not need a growth management act, since nobody wants to cut down any trees from urban areas. Cities such as Corvallis, Ashland, Eugene, and Bend are covered with mature, healthy trees.

Oregon DLCD Officials including the all volunteer LCDC (Land Conservation and Development Commission) should really be ashamed by their antagonism of prospective organic farmers, who once migrated to the state in search of cheap land (before growth management in the early 1970's). I would guess that it's probably easier to start a small farm in many areas of unincorporated Washoe County, Nevada (surrounding Reno and Sparks), where there are no urban growth boundaries in the county.

It's probably also easier to start an organic farm in Sonoma County, California, such as the Russian River Valley, or near Sebastopol. Oregon DLCD and LCDC officials should be ashamed that they are turning away some of the West Coast's best hobby farmers, who will go to other states where one to five acre parcels are not only inexpensive, but also close to cities.

Finally, a question - will the process to dissolve the Oregon DLCD begin from the far right tea partiers, far left hippies, or both? I would say from both sides.
-Tom Lane / August 15, 2012

BLM Should Auction Everything in Ashland & the Applegate Valley

Oregon is home to my favorite map company - Benchmark Maps of Medford, Oregon (and, Santa Barbara, California). As many of you know, their state road atlases indicate land ownership by agency, including state lands, the BLM, USFS, etc.

The Bureau of Land Management owns tremendous amounts of farmland all over Oregon. However, the BLM owns significant amount of highly productive farmland that could be used for 1 to 5 acre hobby farms, in a sparsely populated and economically impoverished area 180 miles north to south along Interstate 5, from Eugene to the OR / CA border.

The most productive farmland within this area is near Ashland and in the Applegate Valley. Imagine a climate with highs 85 to 100 in the summer, and lows 50 to 60, with no rain or fog in the summer, and very few fungal diseases. In fact, the Applegate Valley has a growing wine industry, due to (summer) conditions warmer than coastal California.

The Ashland - Applegate Valley area is arguably the best farmland in all of Oregon for one to five acre farms. These BLM lands should be auctioned, and would be purchased immediately by folks from Portland, Seattle, and California who want a few acres for an organic farm. Bend is also surrounded by BLM lands.

What ashame that the members of DLCD, LCDC, and other Oregon land use Officials (such as DSL, Dept. of State Lands), do not join Utah, Nevada, and other western states, who want more BLM land for economic development.

What ashame that these Oregon agencies do not recognize the history of Oregon, which at one time was a prosperous agricultural mecca, originally populated by enthusiastic farmers on the Oregon and Applegate Trails.

Since these officials are not in touch with Oregon's history, and also new Oregon residents, who want land on acreage for small farms and wineries, then their agencies should be permanently dissolved by public vote. Remember, Florida just cancelled its entire growth management act.

It is time for Oregonians to start the process of dissolving DLCD, LCDC, and DSL. It's time for Oregonians to start a new office - the "Office of Oregon's Organic State Farmlands." It's time to abolish the 80 acre rule. Only an office concerned with organic farmland can understand this. -Tom Lane / August 15, 2012

How are these use laws even legal?

These land use "laws" are unconstitutional and should be challenged in court by land owners. This so called free country shouldn't have rules about private property like this.

Plus it will cause affordability problems on a huge scale. This is a terrible trend that needs to be stopped in its tracks.

Urban Growth Boundaries and Private Property

Growth management, in Oregon or anywhere else, involves regulatory takings, infringing on private property rights. In the case of an urban growth boundary, land values go down outside the boundary, and increase inside the boundary.

Therefore, the entire system of expanding Oregon municipal growth boundaries every 20 years benefits folks whose land happens to be included within the next 20 years of growth.

Of course, the system is extremely corrupt, since landowners will pay local planners, and perhaps even the DLCD / LCDC officials, to include their holdings within the next 20 year boundary.

Housing is very expensive in Oregon, since homes and apartments inside the boundary are more expensive, since the supply of land is limited to only a 20 year supply. Some developers may have to ration their holdings, and sell it at an increased cost, in order to stay in business another 20 years, and beyond.

And, if at the end of 20 years, the DLCD / LCDC refuses to approve the next 20 year expansion (like in Bend, right now), then the developers are stuck, and may go out of business. Bend has been waiting for about 7 years for the stubborn DLCD / LCDC offficials to approve their next 20 year UGB expansion.


Of course they are constitutional. Doesn't mean you get a good outcome, but it also doesn't make them illegal. Railing against land use laws is nonsense. Over 100 years of case law have validated the need. I can agree that this has all kinds of implications for land values, etc, but a property owner that challenges these regulations will just lose money and time. We need to find solutions that aren't tied to hysterical nonsense about how this is a "free country" and people have "property rights". While both are true, there are limits to what that means.

Does anyone here use a

Does anyone here use a Husqvarna snow thrower for their farm? I would appreciate some feedback because I want to purchase one soon. Hope someone can help me. Cheers!!

Specific Questions on Oregon Land Use Law and Organic Farming

You are speaking in generalities rather than specifics. We do live in a free country, and we do have private property rights. However, what specifically do you mean by "limits" to the meaning of these concepts?

Here are some specific questions -

1. Is it "fair" to establish an urban growth boundary, resulting in regulatory takings ... where the property values of everyone who live outside the boundary suddenly go down?

2. Is it "fair" to establish a system of expanding urban growth boundaries (UGB) every 20 years, and then the agency that is responsible for issuing the 20 years of growth (Oregon's DLCD / LCDC), abdicates its responsibility to expand the UGB in Bend, Oregon?

3. Is this "fair" when it causes 12% to 15% unemployment in Bend with starving children, when formerly, Bend was booming with new construction 10 years ago and well under 8% unemployment?

The DLCD / LCDC have violated Oregon state statues. How? Well, they are required to work with local cities approving UGB expansions every 20 years. Yet they turned Bend down every single time, in the past seven years or so. Bend even considered Suing the DLCD.

4. As for the topic of Martin's article, is it "fair" to suddenly tell prospective property owners in Oregon that they must make $80,000 a year just to live on their own farmland?

5. What specific environmental goal, if any, does this (and other) requirements for Oregon farmers, accomplish?

6. Furthermore, what is "wrong" with a one to five acre organic farm? How is that going to harm the environment, whether it's in the Willamette Valley, Applegate Valley, or east of Bend?

Oregon officials need to answer these questions, with statistics on how small, organic farms making less than $80,000 are somehow "harmful" to Oregon's environment.

7. Indeed, how can an "organic" farm ever, under any circumstances, be "harmful" to the environment?

See the Cascade Policy Institute on repealing the $80,000 rule -

Link to the Oregon DLCD / LCDC $80,000 rule

and the transport...

Think also of the impact of automated 'micro' cars, about the size of a dog, sending freshly harvested crops to the local restaurant or store or home, immediately, and on a spit of electricity.

This should be one of the first applications of Google's full-automation transport technology, which they are currently developing (Google: self driving car). I have long thought this technology would revolutionise local farming - politics permitting. And it's the ultimate expression of immediate and efficient supply, and bypassing the middle men.