Suburban sprawl, mostly halted since the recession, is looming anew around Ann Houghton’s farm in rural Scott County.
Houses are sprouting in nearby fields. The county has plans for new roads, including one that could run through Houghton’s farm. Not far away, a towering power line has already forced some farmers to sell their land.
As development on the metro fringe increases once again, so does the anxiety for farmers who worry it will overtake them.
“If things were to keep going the way they are, it seems like the cities would creep out and take over the farmland,” Houghton said. “There’ll come a point where you can’t stay.”
The growth is nowhere near that of the early 2000s, but the agricultural landscape continues to change in Scott County and across the metro. Between 2002 and 2012, the seven-county area lost nearly 50,000 acres of farmland, according to the Census of Agriculture. People who watch the agriculture industry say that trend is expected to continue.
“There’s been a long anticipation that there will be substantial growth in the Twin Cities area,” said Bob Patton, a supervisor in the agricultural marketing and development division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “That growth has to go somewhere.”
In Scott County, where the number of new housing permits is rising, officials are preparing for growth with plans to expand the county road network.
Heidi Morlock, a Belle Plaine Township farmer who stands to lose a pasture full of black walnut trees to one of the roads, envisions it bringing even more development.
“As you lose farms, it’s harder to be a farmer in a sea of houses,” she said.
In the early 2000s, Scott County was issuing about 200 building permits annually for housing construction in its townships, where many of its farms are located. That number dropped to 38 in 2009 before rising again in 2012. In 2014, the county issued 53 new housing permits in the townships.
The county has a list of more than a dozen road projects needed to accommodate the growing population, and will use a new sales tax, which goes into effect this fall, to fund them. One is an extension of County Road 8, which may run through Houghton’s and Morlock’s land.
Brad Davis, Scott County’s planning manager, said the County Road 8 extension likely won’t happen for at least 10 years. But the timeline could change if more funding is available, he said.
Whatever the date, the farmers say the possibility of the road makes it hard to plan for the future.
Scott County farmers started to get nervous in 2009 when they saw the county’s comprehensive plan allowed for widespread development by 2030. Houghton, Morlock and others mobilized to champion local food and get more involved with local government. But they’re not sure how long they can keep up that effort.
“It’s exhausting,” Houghton said, noting the slowdown during the recession was a welcome respite.
Residents of nearby counties have tried different tactics to protect farmland from development.
In Dakota County, the pre-recession building boom spurred voters to approve a $20 million land preservation bond referendum in 2002. The county used some of that money to buy easements from willing farmers, preserving that land indefinitely.
“We don’t know what those development patterns are going to be like, but what this does is it protects the options for the future,” said Al Singer, Dakota County’s land conservation manager.
Carver County emphasizes agricultural preservation in its comprehensive plan, said land management department manager Steve Just. It leads metro counties in total acreage enrolled in the voluntary Metropolitan Agricultural Preserves Program, which offers tax breaks for land preservation. Of the nearly 210,000 acres enrolled in the program in 2013, more than half were in Carver County.
But those efforts only go so far, Singer said.
“The economic engine that drives residential development and large projects is much greater than what we have any kind of impact on,” he said.
When development looms, farmers have to weigh whether to continue working the land or cash out by selling or renting the acreage.
Though land and commodity prices have fallen, values are still strong historically, said Glen Fladeboe, who co-owns Fladeboe Auctions, a farmland auction business. And more development boosts the price, he said, because farmland becomes scarce.
“It’s a piece of real estate that once it goes away, there’s not a lot of precedent to show that it’ll come back to farmland,” he said.
Even when farmland doesn’t go away, infrastructure that comes with population growth can end farming. New Prague dairy Cedar Summit Farm closed earlier this year because of concerns about the effect of the CapX2020 power line on its organic operation.
An electrical substation was recently built near the farm belonging to Lori Pint and her husband Norm, on a portion of land they sold years before. The substation isn’t ideal, Lori Pint said, but she’s grateful that it’ll prevent residential development there.
Still, the massive structure is a sign of how the area is changing, and how farmers may need to acclimate.
“It looks very futuristic,” Pint said. “Which it is — I mean, they’re planning 50 years out in the future.”