Monday, August 20, 2012

Restricting homestead farms

Although many people like to complain about the intrusiveness and pig headedness of the Federal Government, State Governments have a long history of being just as compliant to special interests at the expense of the more diffuse and possibly less monied crowd.

Martin Harris, Newgeography, 13 August 2012

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.”

The posting eventually discusses Vermont within the context of the raw-milk restrictions that were forced through by the big food retailers.
The author posits two reasonable claims for these restrictions, and I will expand on his reasoning.  One is to restrict competition.  The idea that the small farms are now 20% of the market is extremely unlikely to be accurate.  But what they can be is a very large percentage of the high profit margin, value added market.  One-percent of a market would be too much for the food retailers, if it is the one-percent where they get 20% of their profits from.
The author also notes that the restrictions on residential lots, requiring enormous lots is likely a set aside project for the wealthy is probably to some degree true, but is more likely true as a seconary result of other concerns.
Recall that landowners are always concerned with maintaining the value of their land.  In a society that allows land holdings to be split between many siblings (as we allow) the land can quickly get divided into such tiny parcels that it becomes impossible to farm, or more importantly today, impossible to develope.  The 20 acre restrictions are likely in place to keep the rural countryside from becoming a small patchwork of tiny homeowner lots that cannot be sold.
There is some historically viable logic to this from a farming prospective as well.  During the homesteading period, when they were giving out lots of land, they eventually came to find that there was a minimum farm size which could be sustained through the ups and downs of bad weather.  The farmers of the day could only make limited useage of fossil fuels to replace pasturage for horse feeding oats, and farms of well over 100 acres were needed to give enough diversity of resources to survive through periods of drought.
We noted in a long ago piece
Reflexiones finales, 23 September 2012

As American settlements pushed further west past the 100th meridian, dry farming techniques were promoted that were designed to deal with the dryer climate found in the area.
Unfortunately the lack of accurate information led the Great Plains to be settled too densely in farms that were later found to be too small, undercapitalized and insufficiently diversified to be sustainable. The initial problems were found to occur in Western Kansas when droughts in the 1890s reduced homesteads from a peak of 3,083 to a low point of 907 with only very slow growth into the 20th century. But at the same time farm sizes doubled from 221 acres to 461 by 1900. link4

So with regards to your smaller homestead farms, there is a something of the case of being wary of getting what you ask for.  Historically, large groups of small homestead farms without modern farming equipment, had a very poor survival rate.


John D. Wheeler said...

Excellent post! The minimum size for a homestead is definitely a function of the bioregion, so it is definitely appropriate to be regulated by the states. Also, the $80,000 in sales should really not be a barrier; I've met one woman who had almost that much her first year on 3 acres of rented land. Of course she did have a good apprenticeship before that, but that is the point. You really need to know what you are doing before you try to make a living at it.

dennis said...

The government needs to get the f out of our lives. We got a 40 acre minimum to build a house. So i could not build a home next to my aging parents so I could take care of them. Some things are more important than zoning laws. Beekeepers do not need all 40 acres, but we do like some buffer zones where we pasture cattle. The GD bureaucratic mindset is out of control...we think this sick state is necessary. It is killing this country.

russell1200 said...

In reverse order:

Dennis: Dealing with government bureacracy is no fun, and given the situation you describe, I can very much understand your anger. But I doubt there has ever been a time - including your copper age villages circa 5,000 BCE - when there were not restrictions placed on land use. I have seen the effects of no zoning laws on Southern communities - gravel pits built right next to peoples homes.

None of which necessarily argues with the idea that our beaurocracy is out of control. But in my case, I would argue that it is often misdirected, rather than out of control.

John: Those are excellent examples. The deflationary spiral that crushed many farmers in the Great Depression (often because they could not pay a fixed land tax) does make me very wary of dollar amount restrictions.