The Gristle

FarmGate
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FARMGATE: The U.S. Department of Agriculture released preliminary data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, providing a snapshot of a rural America facing difficult times. The five-year update of the nation’s farm report holds mixed news for Whatcom County, which while economically stable—perhaps even surging—continues to lose precious acres to conversion and encroachment by development. Statewide, Washington has lost more than 2,000 farms since the last census update and shed nearly 225,000 acres of once productive farmland, according to data.

Nationwide, a total of 72 million acres of farmland have been lost since the USDA began measuring the loss in 1982, although the pace appears to be slowing.

“The results reinforce what we have known for many years,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack noted in the release of the report, “the farm population is aging. While that is a concern, the data also show that the number of young farmers increased slightly and the number of minority farm and ranch principal operators increased dramatically, reflecting the changing face of America as a whole.” Prolonged drought and the effects of climate change in many areas of the country continue to pressure the nation’s heartland, his agency reported.

With more than 140,000 acres of land, Whatcom County leads the other 17 counties in western Washington in agricultural output, producing more than $325 million market value in agricultural yield, ranking in the top 3 percent of productive counties nationally. Ag is also the county’s largest employer for seasonal labor. Perhaps the most notable feature of agriculture is that it is by definition sustainable, producing revenue for decades unto centuries at virtually no cost to the tax base.

Farmer and former Planning Commissioner John Belisle, owner and operator of Bellewood Acres, has been giving thought to a full cost and benefit analysis of Whatcom farmland as a means of driving public policy decisions in local government. He has been joined in his analysis by Paul Schissler, a community development planner working in the public interest. At its most fundamental, land-use policy and growth management practices should attempt to lever maximum value out of land at lowest cost, these analysts believe.

At the time of the 2007 USDA Ag Census, for which there is currently complete data, Whatcom County produced approximately $3,000 per acre per year of farm gate value, a measure of the net value of cultivated product after it leaves the farm, according to their analysis. The figure is arrived at by dividing the county’s agricultural yield as recorded by census by the county’s 102,500 acres in farm production.

“If most of that $3,000 gets spent in the local economy, an economist could tell us about multiplier effects, as the ripple effects are greater than $3,000,” Schissler said, noting that farm labor wages alone are circulated directly back into the local economy. Products and services that support the farming industry are also included in that economic multiplier.

“Now combine that with the facts about how land use affects local government tax revenue and spending,” he said.

The “Cost of Community Services,” a report produced by the American Farmland Trust (AFT), suggests that the ratio of the cost of government services is roughly $1.25 to every dollar of revenue produced in neighboring rural Skagit County. In productive Skagit farm country, government spending drops to about $0.51 in services for every dollar of revenue generated. Similar trends are seen across 151 communities around the country the report noted.

The median COCS results reported is $0.35 for farm land compared to $1.16 for residential land, measuring the cost to provide public services against revenue raised by farm land and residential land respectively. Residential use requires three times what farm land requires in public spending.

“COCS studies conducted over the last 20 years show working lands generate more public revenues than they receive back in public services,” the report authors noted. “Their impact on community coffers is similar to that of other commercial and industrial land uses. On average, because residential land uses do not cover their costs, they must be subsidized by other community land uses. Converting agricultural land to residential land use should not be seen as a way to balance local budgets,” the authors warned.

The data cuts against Whatcom County government policy over the same 20 year period, where the emphasis has been the conversion of open space to residences at lasting cost to county taxpayers.

“Farm land is a cash cow for local government, rural homes are a big drain on public coffers,” Schissler noted. “And farm land produces a big impact on the local economy, beyond the net revenue it provides for public services.”

Every five-acre parcel converted to residential use makes it harder for the County Council to balance its budget; meanwhile, revenues from commercial endeavors like retail end up concentrated in the county’s urban areas. The county collects no utility revenues from rural homes.

At essence, growth management should be viewed as a tool to reduce costs and taxpayer burden, a profoundly conservative effort. Indeed, the Growth Management Act itself was introduced in 1990 by a conservative Legislature concerned the state and counties could bankrupt themselves providing government services to rural sprawl. The wrong-headedness of county policy over the past 20 years—which has focused on flipping land for private profit, converting it from agriculture to residences that through encroachment threaten the viability of neighboring agriculture—is extreme; and it is one of the reasons why the current County Council should not be viewed as “liberal,” but as pragmatic and focused on more beneficial outcomes.

Green space is pretty; that’s not entirely why it is important to save it.


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