By Donella Meadows
–June 27, 1991–
This morning about 100 neighbors and I swarmed like bright-colored locusts over a strawberry field, gleaning fat red berries. Babies snoozed in the shade of their carriages. Bigger kids had strawberry juice from ear to ear. There was a low murmur of lazy chatter. “How many do we need for shortcake? It’s getting hot. Mommy, is this one ripe enough?” It was Pick-Your-Own day at a local farm.
I thought as I bent with the sun on my back, how many problems were being solved with this simple operation. Boring labor was transformed into fun. Strawberries were whisked out of the field at the peak of ripeness with great efficiency and no cost (except for the berries going into the mouths of the pickers). The farmers were getting a higher price for their berries than they would have in the wholesale market, and the customers a lower price than they would have at the supermarket.
Mothers were finding a way to occupy just-out-of-school children. The kids were learning something about where food comes from, and that it doesn’t come without work. Couch potatoes were getting much-needed bending and stretching exercise.
The strawberries were carried home with minimal packaging — most people brought their own containers. Time and transport from field to kitchen were also minimal. Berries went into my freezer half an hour after they were picked, after a journey of four miles — as opposed to the thousand or more miles that the average bite of American food travels before it is eaten.
Near my house in the appropriate seasons I can Pick-My-Own strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, peas, and apples. I can cut my own Christmas tree. I can “subscribe” to a farm, paying an upfront yearly fee for a bagful of fresh vegetables every week. I can help pick those, too. The subscription farmer gets the income at the beginning of the season, when investments in seeds, materials, and equipment are most necessary. The customer gets to share the unfolding growing season, as spinach yields to peas, and peas to beans, zucchini, corn, tomatoes.
This array of friendly agricultural options is open to me because the place where I live still has small farms intermingled with residential areas. That land-use pattern is very unstable for two reasons.
One is the pressure of agricultural conglomeration. Subsidies, marketing arrangements, commodity programs, and tax laws all push toward a landscape of megafarms, each growing a single crop for a national market, each too big to be bothered with direct sales to neighbors, even if there were neighbors. Megafarms are where thousand-mile food journeys originate.
The second threat to the local Pick-Your-Own is the momentum of the land market, which defines housing developments and shopping malls as higher and better and more profitable land uses than farms. That market drives rural land into suburban land and suburban land into urban land. The result is dense conglomerations of people eating food from distant megafarms, via an expensive chain of processing plants, trains, warehouses, freezer trucks, packaging, advertisements, and supermarkets.
Fresh from the strawberry patch, I humbly submit that if your place still has the option of avoiding that outcome — if it still has a healthy balance of people and land, farms and homes — you should do everything in your power to keep your local farms alive.
You can do that individually by patronizing subscription farms, Pick-Your-Owns, and farmers’ markets. You can do it collectively in two ways. One is flat-out agricultural zoning, designating farmland as always-farmland.
That’s how farmland has been protected in Europe for decades. Communities grow there and land is released for housing or commercial development when needed, but thoughtfully, and stingily. Half-acre house lots would strike a European as unbelievably land-wasteful. They practice what we call “cluster zoning,” requiring developments to be quite dense and surrounding them with expanses of protected fields or forests.
The alternative to zoning is more expensive but more popular in this market-minded country. It’s the purchase of development rights. Some public entity — usually a community or state — buys the “development right” to a farm. The land stays in private hands and can be cultivated, logged, lived on, bought and sold. But no owner, present or future, can subdivide or build on it without the agreement of the holder of the development rights. The land price, therefore, stays low, so farmers will be able to afford it.
New Hampshire has just protected 100,000 acres of farm and forest land over a period of five years by acquiring development rights at a cost of $40 million. That protection price of $400 an acre looks like a bargain now and will look even more so to future generations. New Hampshire’s protection program is scheduled to run just one more year.
Vermont has hit upon a more long-lasting scheme. Its program, which has protected almost 40,000 acres in three years for just under $16 million, is partially funded by a tax on real-estate transactions. So it won’t go out of business. In fact, the more development pressure there is on the farms, the more in business it will be.
I was especially happy this morning because I knew that the farm where I picked my berries has been protected by state purchase of development rights. It can have strawberry fields forever.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991