Preventing Mini Farms

By Martin Harris Jr.

One could argue that the "new agriculture" - typically small acreage, intensively managed, organic in avoidance of contemporary practice in both chemical use and genetic modification, and uniquely adaptable to such practices as niche market service, consumer association (community sharing) and pick-your-own - won't supplant present-day, large-scale, commercial, generic-commodity agriculture anytime soon, but one should also recognize that if industry observers are correct in gauging the size of this producer-to-consumer sector at 20 percent of the total, then, logically, rural land use planning ought to be moving to recognize this "new normal" and providing for it in statute and regulation. Just the opposite seems to be happening, as the so-called "Smart-Growth" doctrine, opposed to traditional low-density suburban development for both residential and commercial land use, now seems to favor smaller lots for residential and commercial - no more wooded and lawned exurban campuses for business, manufacturing or research, no more large-lot trophy-house-or-less subdivisions, but very large indeed minimum lot sizes in beyond-the-new-city-wall farmland.

In Oregon, for example, the minimum farm lot size is 80 to 160 acres and is described in various studies of Oregon's land use laws as the smallest presently acceptable to the state's Land Conservation and Development Commission, which also calls for minimum residential lot size of 20 acres for areas beyond the adopted urban growth boundaries, "to help contain Oregon's growing urban population inside the growth boundaries." Similar regulations in Illinois and Pennsylvania call for 40 and 50-acre minimum farm lot sizes, and these lots come with residential prohibitions. In Oregon, for example, according to the Cascade Policy Institute, there's a state regulation "requiring a piece of property zoned as high-value farmland to generate $80,000 in annual sales before a dwelling can be built for the farmer."

Translated to corn, a commodity crop more typically associated with large-scale commercial farming than with small acreage mini farms, the 80 acres, if farmed to match the recent new high national average yield of, say, 160 bushels per acre and selling at a recent $6 per bushel would be generating 160 x $6 x 80 or $76,800, which shows that a typical Midwestern Corn Belt corn grower wouldn't be welcome as a new resident in Oregon's Willamette Valley, extending some 150 miles northerly from Eugene at the south end through Salem (state capital) to Portland at the north, a notably heavily gentrified rural district comparable in size and population (not counting the urban populations) to such similar enclaves as Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and, some would argue, the entire state of Vermont. As for the vineyard operators, for whose more-valuable-than-corn bottled product the Willamette Valley is well-known in oenophile circles - not as well as California's Napa - most likely (we have no definitive stats on vineyard-gate wine values as we do for shelled corn) an 80-acre operation there would easily meet the $80,000 (that's a gross of $1,000 per acre) threshold benchmark and be permitted (literally) to build a house for the owner.

Whether operators of mini farms in the .25 to 10-acre range (as defined by the titles of advisory books that offer author advice on "X Acres and Independence") can generate $1,000 per acre for their (typically) few acres depends on production choice (pastured beef less likely than row crop broccoli), possible intra-season follow-on cropping, crop destination (less per-unit return for larger quantities necessarily wholesaled to retailers, more for smaller quantity on-site direct-to-consumer sales) and, of course, management skill. Judging by the percent of all farms, large to small, which are reported by the USDA to derive some 90 percent of household income from off-farm nonfarm jobs, a safe guess for mini farmers as a subgroup would be "not likely." And even if they could gross $1,000 per acre, doing so on, say, 5 acres (we have no official stats for mini farm size distribution, although the USDA tells us that the 0 to 50-acre category is increasing and so the 5-acre size is just a guessed-at average) doesn't suggest economic "independence" in comparison to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics stats for median U.S. household income in the $50,000 range. Of course, if there are any mini farms in the 80-acre size, they would be extremely few in number and far off on the right-hand side of the size-distribution bell curve. That's for a third reason: labor.

All the qualities associated with the "new agriculture" indicate more intensive management time and effort than modern economics records for more traditional, large-lot commodity agriculture with its dependence on 10 and 12-row equipment to enable a single operator with minimal help to produce at large scale: the typical mini farm operator (plus household) simply couldn't apply the same level of intensive management at an 80-plus-acre level as he (they) can at the ever-more-widely practiced 5-acre level. With the exception of some equipment designed specifically for small operations, like cultivators and harvesters (and sold mostly to third-world operators), there's no equipment yet invented to replace the grower touch in dealing with any produce from flowers and table crops (note the intensive use of low-wage, sometimes illegal, hand labor for such operations of commercial size in California) to aquaculture in the Lower Midwest and small (literally) livestock operations here and there across the U.S.

Taken together, both of Oregon's farm zoning requirements - not less than 80 acres in farm size, not less than $80,000 in annual gross revenues - and adding in the built-in labor question, all seem specifically designed to prevent mini farm-based rural land use practices and to instead encourage a more limited range of larger-scale choices. These range from commercial-scale vineyards (interestingly, found not only in Oregon's Willamette Valley but in the more gentrified exurbs of New York City at the eastern end of Long Island and in the not-yet-suburbanized (like Westchester) counties between the Bronx (originally small-farm country, indeed, when still under Dutch ownership) to the south and Albany to the north) to mechanizable operations like sod and organic wheat, and relatively low-labor-requirements-per-acre operations like beef grazing, all of the above hardly doable, economically, at the typical small-acreage scale of the usual mini farm; a USDA brief on small-acreage cattle raising specifically describes it as paired with off-farm income. The question then becomes the reasoning behind the state government's land use management decision.

An observer cannot (humble scribe opinion, here) simply assume that state planners in Oregon (and the other states that have adopted similar large-lot requirements for farming) have precluded mini farming beyond their "urban growth boundaries" unintentionally, because they supposedly understood so little of the "old" ag and the "new" ag as to conclude that one size - 80 acres minimum - fits both. Quite the contrary: such management positions in government presuppose both formal education and executive branch experience, understanding of historic and recent patterns in the economics of land use, and, at least for rural land planning decisions, awareness of just such recent trends in agriculture as the ever-more-critical off-farm-income component for households in both the "old" ag - modern, large-scale, commercial-commodity agriculture - and the "new" ag - a more labor-intensive, but smaller-scale and more customized to a specific consumer-sector set of demands - and, almost as importantly in conjunction with the off-farm income question, the ever-more-evident need for rural-site off-farm business and commerce to provide exactly the nonfarm jobs both "agricultures" now require. It seems more logical (humble scribe opinion, again) to expect that state-level management people have these competencies than to assume that they are unaware or ignorant of them. So there must be carefully thought out planner reasons, unstated but underlying, for mini farm prevention. Two possibilities, seemingly improbable but both historically based, come to mind.

One posits the competition-prevention scenario, the concern of the beyond-the-farmgate food industry over loss of control over any part of the eventual consumer dollar (as the "new ag" and its mini farms have done over the last two or three decades in raising their "market share" from insignificant to, some observers claim, as much as 20 percent) to unwanted new competition. In this view, any new farmstand just outside the "urban growth boundary" is a dollar-for-dollar challenge to the established retailers, distributors and processors, even the commodity brokers and buyers working at the farmgate, in the business chain that ends at the already established retail checkout counter well within the "urban growth boundary." In recent history, this concern first showed up in Vermont in the '70s, when grocery chain lobbyists attended a raw milk ban proposal hearing in force to proclaim that their only concern was "public health" and that for consumer safety all milk should be legally required to move from farm to home through their channels alone. Across the nation now, as such do-it-yourself or sell-to-neighbors enterprises as urban poultry flocks or home-baked pies at farmers' markets show, legal attempts at prevention (supposedly on behalf of consumer health, but more evidently on behalf of food retailers, almost universally) now take place. For states to respond to industry lobbying pressures for new rural land use planning for supposed preservation of farmland, but for actual preservation of market share, would not be an unreasonable speculation.

The other posits a tilt toward favoring land acquisition by a wealthier and more gentrified sector of society as opposed to the sort of folks who established small-acreage live-off-the-land communes and collectives in the '60s. Setting the cost of entry and cost to stay high enough encourages the former and discourages the latter, precisely as large-lot residential zoning (and even minimum house size requirements) did in the more self-consciously exclusive northeastern suburbs in the '70s. Some of these, by excluding small-lot inexpensive housing (for families that would doubtless send more kids to school than their taxes would pay for) ran afoul of court challenges on grounds of socioeconomic discrimination - municipalities pretty much can't outlaw trailers any more, nor ghettoize them in trailer parks, but the legal record is decidedly mixed. There are some municipalities or towns that forbid and others that permit "accessory housing" or "echo" homes - "elder cottage housing opportunity" - but the underlying argument is over money and class: where the zoners set the bar to get the more demographically upscale development wherever possible. Seen in that light, an 80-acre rule that works well for private-label vineyards and not well for self-sufficiency homesteaders, organic or otherwise, makes some logical sense. Just as different jurisdictions adopt different residential lot (and housing) sizes, it's probable that some states will pursue the Oregon 80-acre farm lot model and some won't. However, the economic purchasing power of the consumer 20 percent now eager to buy organic veggies at farmers' markets won't go away: expect some insufficiently successful vineyard operator near Portland to subdivide his eighth-section (a little archaic surveyor's lingo, there; the Homestead Act of 1862 prescribed 160-acre quarter-sections) operation into 15 little 5-acre leased farmettes, at a total ground rent high enough for the $80,000 annual revenue permit to build his own mini mansion on the 16th.

The author is an architect and former farmer.