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Real farm preservation means making agriculture profitable

December 31, 2002

Put the development where the municipal services already exist.

That seems to be the guiding principle behind a proposed new comprehensive plan for Jefferson County, W.Va., that would concentrate new development in a "townscape" area around Charles Town and Ranson. But planners need to look harder at ways to encourage farming to continue.

To encourage preservation of land in designated rural areas, the proposed plan would only allow cluster developments at a rate of one home per five acres.

Lee Snyder, a member of Citizens for Economic Preservation, correctly notes that most homeowners don't want to care for five-acre lots and that such a rule will only use up the land more quickly.

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How can farming be made more profitable so that young people are encouraged to stay on the land?

This past April, Richard Levins, an agricultural economist with the University of Minnesota, gave a speech to the National Farmers Organization in which he said that the problem most farmers face is that they essentially compete with one another instead of joining forces to market their crops.

This doesn't mean Soviet-style cooperative farming, but agreeing to work together on things like marketing and the joint purchase of seed and fertilizer. It might also mean owning equipment jointly or setting up a dairy operation to process their own milk.

Without such cooperation, Levins said, family farmers are competing against corporate-owned operations in a game in which they have a severe disadvantage.

The first step toward making this happen is for government to endorse the view that it not only wants to preserve farmland, but also make farming a profitable enterprise.

We advise all governments in the region to look at the issue, and not take too long to do it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's last farm census revealed that the average American farmer is now more than 55 years old - 10 years away from the age at which many traditionally retire. Government needs to give them an option other than selling their land for development.

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