Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Protecting Ag Land in the Big Sky State

Contributing to the growing national dialogue on agriculture and food law, the University of Montana’s Land Use Clinic recently issued a report on agricultural protection through local planning, regulation, and incentives.  While portions of the report are specific to Montana, other portions are more national in scope, discussing a variety of communities that have used land use planning techniques to not only protect agricultural lands from development but also build agricultural support systems that keep producers in operation. 

The Montana Constitution is unique in requiring state lawmakers to “protect, enhance, and develop all of agriculture” (Mont. Const. art. XII, § 1), and Montana is among a small handful of states in expressly requiring mitigation of impacts to agriculture during subdivision review after submission of an Environmental Assessment (Mont. Code Ann. § 76-3-603, -608(3)).  These legal protections were implemented in the early 1970s but have yet to be fully carried out by Montana local governments, many of which are now facing the reality of dwindling agricultural lands and growing demand for local food supply.  A Missoula Independent story titled "Digging In" profiles one case study that is representative of the larger issue.

Agricultural protection is revealing itself to be contentious in Montana, with property rights interests pitted against interests in local food supply and the protection of agricultural heritage.  Last month, I attended a community listening session that was packed with a divided crowd.  Participants were often emotional, but also quite thoughtful, in explaining the dilemma.  Dozens of young farmers belonging to the Community Food Agricultural Coalition sported green t-shirts that read “I like AG in my culture.”  These new farmers expressed a strong desire to pursue agriculture as their livelihood but need significant help locating farmland on which to operate.  This proves difficult because they are not born into farming families and thus unlikely to inherit agricultural property.  The new farmers also need older operators to train them in the trade.   Farmers market representatives added their perspective about the growing demand for local food as a key part of the economy.  Even 4H kids stood up and said “I want to protect agriculture!”

Existing farmers, often nearing retirement age, admonished the audience that their farmland is their “IRA”---the sale of farmland to developers is often their sole source of retirement income after years of hard labor working the land.  To keep the land in production, they argue, requires that the community pay them to do so.  Mitigation requirements, they contend, are simply taking more off the farmers’ backs.   Representatives from the realty organizations argued that people also have a right to housing, and that urbanizing communities will need to look beyond their boundaries for food supply. 

The Clinic’s report offers a possible road map for local governments to begin the long process of creating robust agricultural protection programs that balance these competing interests.  We were lucky enough to receive a grant from the Pleiades Foundation to print and disseminate this report to local governments.  If there are case studies that you believe should be mentioned in the report, we welcome additional suggestions before the final version goes to print.

Michelle Bryan Mudd

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