These landscape-oriented restrictions
make farming unsustainable.
By Joel Salatin
The words stung.
“You cannot build a single structure on this farm.”
We wanted to build a chick brooder and a small processing shed in order to add pastured broilers to the farm we leased. This new enterprise was essential to making the whole farm viable. But the nonprofit organization policing the easement was adamant: No new construction.
Almost everyone is in favor of preserving green space. How best to do it is another matter. One of the models currently lauded by environmental groups is an easement whereby a landowner voluntarily creates a deed restriction against future development or nonagricultural uses, policed by a trust, in exchange for tax concessions due to the change in real estate value.
Landowners proudly display their easement signs at the farm gate: “Protected forever . . .” Protected from what? Protected from innovation, that’s what. Having dealt with several easements on other farms, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would sign up for one.
Perhaps the most common easement is the government program known as CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), which ostensibly protects riparian areas in exchange for fencing and tree establishment and a 10-year cash payment per acre. On one farm we lease, the landowner signed onto the program and subsequently spent tens of thousands of dollars in her 80/20 cost share arrangement. The water system, which cost well over $100,000, completely failed in its first season.
For some reason, CREP won’t develop ponds, which I consider far and away the most efficient livestock watering containment and storage system since a pond yields aquatic environments, holds runoff from seasonal floods, and doesn’t punch holes in aquifers. Unlike wells—which, in a drought, can stop without notice—ponds are visible, so a farmer can walk out any day and see how much water is available. The other problem is that the government program only pays for nonportable, capital-intensive watering stations that militate against ecological grazing management. (That is, a farmer cannot rotate his herd around his property but must instead keep it near the watering station, to the degradation of the land.) Furthermore, the government-built fences, with their straight lines and square corners, assault the topography.
After the CREP system failed, we went in and built a pond (fenced off from the cattle, of course) and installed a piped underground water system that serves three times the acreage, that has never failed, and that is conducive to rotational grazing—for one-tenth the cost of the government system. The landowner, incensed over the money she wasted in the easement-based system, asked the government agent in charge to come for a tour of our low-cost alternative system. He wouldn’t come. (So much for a spirit of open-mindedness.)
On this farm, we can’t even build a doghouse. The landowners are now quite remorseful that the easement exists. To have a nonfarmer group from 200 miles away telling the landowner what is appropriate according to the easement is like putting an Amish man in charge of nuclear reactor regulations.
On another farm, a young couple wanted to run pastured chickens on their rented farm. But according to the landlord, the easement police considered even portable chicken shelters and eggmobiles to be new construction and therefore inappropriate development. What good is protecting farmland if we don’t protect the farmers and their economic viability on the land?
Building a chick brooder and processing shed, or adding a walk-in cooler for an egg inventory, is not antithetical to farming. Indeed, a house for employees and a pavilion for agritourism dinner entertainment are all pieces of the economic puzzle to keep non-industrial farms viable in our modern day.
One of the distinctive features and appeal of Colonial Williamsburg is the imbedded craft economy surrounding the farmsteads. The blacksmith, woodworker, barrel maker, shingle maker, spinner, and candlemaker found behind the main farmhouse all contribute to the economic viability of the farm.
Economic viability today demands value-adding, which means onfarm infrastructure like you would expect to see in Williamsburg. Too often those policing these easements want to see cows, pretty pastures, and bucolic gambrel barns without realizing that such a landscape never existed sustainably. Real profitable and ecologically sensible working farms had smokehouses, butchering facilities, housing for workers, inventory and distribution centers, and a host of other synergistic enterprises.
One of the main reasons farms have become non-viable today is that they do not include the compatible industry required to keep the money on the farm. Instead, farms have become simply raw commodity production areas that cheaply supply material to valueadded industry offsite. If we are ever going to shake the stranglehold of the industrial food system, we must bring the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers back to our farms.
Ultimately, these easements reduce farm viability and gradually turn Virginia’s pastoral landscape into a wilderness area. That’s probably not the green space folks have in mind. Giving over farm decisions to people who neither farm nor adapt their approaches jeopardizes farmers’ livelihoods. Ultimately, preserving farmers is the only sustainable way to preserve farms.
Internationally acclaimed conference speaker and author Joel Salatin and his family operate Polyface Farms in Augusta County near Staunton, Virginia, producing and direct marketing “salad bar” beef, “pigaerator” pork, and pastured poultry. He is now also co-owner, with Joe Cloud, of T&E Meats in Harrisonburg.
Editor’s note: Many readers were angered by this column. Several letters with this sentiment were published in the Feb./Mar. 2010 issue, which you can read here.
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