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Henrietta Environmental Action Team - HEAT
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Stopping low density urban sprawl, protecting the natural environment and saving wet lands from uncontrolled development
 Agriculture, Quality of Life and Environmental Challenges

Agricultural Sustainability and Smart Growth: Saving Urban-Influenced Farmland

Excerpted from a paper written by Edward Thompson, Jr., Senior Vice President, American Farmland Trust* in collaboration with the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities.

  There is a growing recognition that the protection of farmland around cities and towns – urban-influenced farmland – contributes to smart growth and the livability of our communities. Farms and farmland are valued as scenic landscapes and a part our heritage.They demand fewer public services and, therefore, cost taxpayers less than sprawling subdivisions. If protected as part of the "green infrastructure" around metropolitan areas, they can help guide suburban growth and promote urban revitalization.

  For all these reasons, more and more communities, with help from the private sector, states and the federal government, are taking action to protect urban-influenced farmland. it does not end – with the land that feeds us. This paper does not attempt to describe the many important efforts being made by nonprofit organizations and funders to promote more environmentally benign farming methods, healthier foods and diets, local and regional food systems and the survival of family farms – all components of what is generally thought of as "sustainable agriculture." Necessary as all these are, their achievement is made much more difficult – on both a regional and national scale – by the growing threat that urban sprawl poses to some of America’s most productive, least environmentally problematic land and to the families who are trying to make a living on farms that are fast being surrounded by subdivisions.

   As long as we continue to waste fertile farmland – when it’s gone, it’s gone forever – it is questionable whether any American agricultural system can truly be said to be sustainable.

   A case can be made that the farmland closest to our cities and suburbs – the very land threatened by sprawl – is as important to American agriculture as any land in the nation. First, urban-influenced farmland contributes a significant amount of the U.S. food supply. Fifty-eight percent of the value of the food produced in this country comes from farms in counties within or adjacent to Metropolitan Statistical Areas, not from remote rural areas. Even more important, this includes over three-quarters of our fruits, vegetables and dairy products. A major reason is the high productivity and versatility of urban-influenced farmland. Our agrarian ancestors settled on the best land. But as their villages become sprawling cities, we squander this land at the risk of forcing agricultural production onto more fragile lands or overseas, diminishing the prospects of a sustainable U.S. agriculture. Second, urban-influenced farms are an economic bulwark against sprawl. This goes beyond the contribution that agricultural production makes to the local economy and the modest demand of farms for costly public services in comparison with the tax revenue they generate. Viable economic use of the open space around cities is necessary to justify effective land use regulation in a legal system that has become increasingly intolerant of "takings." Because we cannot buy land around cities fast enough to influence development patterns over wide areas, sustaining agricultural use of that land is perhaps the best strategy that gives smart growth a fighting chance. Thus, supporting family farms and regional food systems becomes doubly important in urbaninfluenced areas.

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