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The right to farm

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Solutions From the Land, an initiative supported in part by Farm Foundation, NFP and The Nature Conservancy, has issued a report: Developing a New Vision for United States Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation. It is a very good read. In short, the authors argue that feeding the world’s growing population without further damaging the ecosystem and biodiversity will require a broad-based, collaborative effort by stakeholders, unlike anything we’ve seen. The authors highlight a number of projects that involve interested and affected stakeholders making land use decisions impacting lands they don’t “own.”

The decision-making vision offered by the authors made sense to me, particularly when augmented by the real world examples of efforts already underway. But alas, I was brought back to reality by a farmer angrily demanding that the “environmentalists” back off, preserving his “right to farm.”

The “right to farm” debate, of course, is about what economists call “externalities”—when something you do, or fail to do on “your” land impacts others and is uncompensated. Generally speaking, in our system of government, rules rather than markets have been used to resolve or at least manage, disputes about externalities.

I know first-hand about such disputes. During my career with a food manufacturing and retailing company, rules affecting our “right” to use land we “owned” were always on the front burner. Most of the time, those rules raised our costs and were uncompensated. At times, we were prohibited from making store deliveries at night because the neighbors didn’t like the noise.  Other times, in an effort to reduce congestion, we were restricted from using highways during the day!  Waste discharges of all types were highly regulated and monitored by local, state and federal governments who frequently disagreed. Zoning restrictions, sometimes created after the fact, often dictated what we must and must not do to locate a store, distribution center or manufacturing plant on land we owned. We didn’t always like it and frequently argued our perspective in public but, in the end, we understood that we existed in a social setting and our commercial success depended, in part, on how we were viewed in the community. We tried hard not to fall on our sword!

These are complicated issues for farmers. And, they cut both ways. If I want to grow organics on land I own, do you, as my neighbor, have the right to use your land in a way that makes that impossible or more expensive for me?  If I allow a wind turbine to be built on my land, do you, as my neighbor, have a right to stop me or even receive compensation for the negative effects, including land value depreciation, those turbines create?  Farmers didn’t seem to mind when food manufacturers and retailers contracted with them for specific crop and animal product types, such as organic vegetables, Angus beef, or canola and sunflower cooking oil.  But now that food manufacturers and retailers are asking farmers to change the way they till the soil and manage their animals it has become an emotional, even political, argument. Why the difference?

Most of the time, I believe, the angst is about not being compensated for making changes. But that, too, cuts both ways. Why, for example, should neighbors—or taxpayers—compensate farmers whose run-off is contaminating their wells, streams, lakes or even the Chesapeake Bay? On the other hand, if someone buys property and builds a house on land adjacent to dairy farmers—as I did—should that person(s) have the right to impose uncompensated changes to reduce the foul smell of liquid manure? I paid a premium for land on the Lake Michigan coast. If a wind farm is built off “my” coast, do I deserve to be compensated? How much? Markets do have a role in resolving disputes over externalities, of course.  In the end, though, I think Solutions from the Land has it mostly right. Public policy debates about externalities involving land use will continue to be most often resolved through the political process, involving both collaboration and the courts.

That’s not all bad. Our political system, while dysfunctional at times, does generally get it right. Recent efforts by responsible farmers and ranchers to blunt the growing criticism of today’s land use and animal production practices are encouraging. The “See It! Stop It!” animal welfare initiative is a good first step in self policing. So, too, is the effort by egg producers to negotiate an enforceable management standard for the industry. Efforts like those and the collaborative efforts highlighted by Solutions from the Land open the door to more and deeper discussions about the costs and benefits of changes being proposed by those without an immediate financial stake in the matter.

Beating one’s chest about preserving the “right to farm” may feel good. But, in the end, I suspect, the philosophical rhetoric will gave way to the reality that farmers, just like everyone else, owe their ongoing commercial success, in large part, to how they are viewed by others in the community, broadly defined.  That’s the real and sustaining “right to farm.”


Bill Boehm Bill Boehm (boehmfoodag@gmail.com)
Food and Ag Industry Expertise

View more posts by Bill Boehm

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.