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In hard times, states still spend to protect farms

HAMDEN, Conn. — Despite tough financial times following the worst recession in decades, some states continue to spend millions of dollars to preserve American farmland and stem its rapid loss to development and suburban sprawl.

Advocates say the preservation efforts are needed to ensure food is available locally if the national distribution system is ever disrupted. They also say it helps maintain a way of life important to many Americans.

Twenty-five states have farmland preservation programs, and nearly half of them are in the densely populated Northeast, where the loss of fields to housing developments and shopping malls has been rapid and pressing. After losing 21 percent of its farmland in less than two decades, Connecticut increased spending on preservation efforts.

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she made the program a priority despite looming budget deficits and demands to cut spending.

“It’s difficult sometimes when there are so many pressing needs,” she said just days before leaving office on Jan. 5. “It’s our culture, our way of life, our farms.”

About 8,000 acres of Connecticut farmland disappear each year, converted to residential and commercial uses, according to the Connecticut Farmland Trust, a private group that works to preserve agricultural land. Without intervention, the state’s remaining farms will be gone in less than two generations, it said.

Nationally, it’s not much better. Between 1982 and 2007, each of the 48 contiguous states lost farmland to development, according to the National Resources Inventory by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University. More than 11 million acres of cropland, nearly 7 million acres of pasture and 5 million acres of range land were lost to developed land in the 25-year period studied.

To stop the loss in Connecticut, the state boosted spending on farmland preservation to $9 million last year, after spending $5 million to $6 million in recent years. Only New Jersey now spends more per state resident to protect land — although the gap is big, $24 per person in New Jersey compared to Connecticut’s $4.57 at the start of 2010.

New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, has seen what can happen when farms are lost and is working to preserve what remains of its agriculture and protect communities’ character and quality of life, said Hope Gruzlovic, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Agriculture Development Committee, which administers the state’s farmland preservation program.

State preservation programs typically buy development rights to the land, paying farmers a set amount in exchange for a promise not to build on the land or sell it to a developer. In Connecticut, farmers are paid the difference between the agricultural value of the land and its potential value if sold for home construction or other non-farm uses. In return, farmers must agree not to subdivide the land or sell it to anyone except another farmer.

The state has agreed to buy development rights to 283 farms with 37,262 acres at a cost of about $130 million since the program began in 1979. Preservationists applaud Connecticut officials, particularly Rell, for pushing land acquisition.

“From a New England perspective, I would say Connecticut has been the most aggressive in the last couple of years in terms of the farmland perspective, which has been wonderful,” said Cris Coffin, New England director of the American Farmland Trust.

The money spent represents a tiny fraction of Connecticut’s budget, which is $19 billion this year. It comes from state bonds and a recently passed $40 fee on land transfer documents, which was strongly opposed by Connecticut’s real estate industry.

George Hindinger said he doesn’t know how much money his father and grandfather received in 1980, when they sold the development rights to his family’s 118-year-old farm in Hamden. But the Hindingers were among the first to enroll their land in the state preservation program, and he’s seen the effect. The 120-acre peach and apple orchard is nearly surrounded by suburban homes and shopping centers have gone up nearby.

The deal has meant Hindinger had to turn down potentially lucrative offers to put cell towers on his land, but he’s philosophical about that.

“A lot of things farmers like about farming is their attachment to the land, to keep the land in active farming,” he said. “It’s a protection. It’s knowing this land will be farmland forever.”

Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust, said farm preservation helps communities as well as farmers. If transportation costs rise to a point where moving food over long distances is not economically feasible, land will still be available locally to grow food. And in non-urban areas, economies are still linked to the health of farms, he said.

If they disappeared, “it would have a devastating effect on communities,” Talmage said.

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