Prior to the housing bubble's burst, the hum of bulldozers and the hammering of construction crews in the rural areas surrounding the Twin Cities seemed without end. Large tracts of highly fertile farmland quickly and continuously disappeared, to be replaced forever by housing tracts, strip malls and pavement.
To the outside observer, this march of equipment, concrete and asphalt looked like progress. But to many rural residents, especially those who made a living on the land, it appeared as something else.
Part of that something else was the realization that the open spaces and the rural way of life many of us and our ancestors sought out was going away fast, and in many cases was already gone. Part of it, too, was the uneasiness of the resulting interface between farm dweller and suburban home owner -- two completely different lifestyles.
However, landowners and agricultural producers weren't the only ones affected by the sprawl. The local-foods movement is a burgeoning effort designed to improve the health of families and schoolchildren through farmers markets and innovative programs like Farm to School.
Many of the same fertile fields that were the target of developers were, or had the potential of becoming, part of the local-foods breadbasket for Twin Cities residents. Farmland also provides environmental benefits, including floodplain protection, groundwater recharge and wildlife habitat.
In Scott County, the Comprehensive 2030 Land Use Plan prepared for the Metropolitan Council proposed that the county's remaining farmland and open space will be reduced from 23 percent to 7 percent. This reduction would come on top of the 56 percent loss of farmland the county experienced over the preceding decade. Not only will this devastate the rural character of Scott County, it will affect the county's ability to produce food for Twin Cities markets.
In response to both the 2030 Plan and the ongoing development impacts on agricultural lands, a number of Scott County agricultural producers asked the county's Board of Commissioners to create a farm advisory task force. Established in 2009 for a five-year term, the task force was charged with helping to develop policies to support farmers and their farming operations to ensure that agriculture remained a viable industry in Scott County in the face of development and urban sprawl.
The task force played an important role on a number of issues, including helping to broaden the agricultural uses allowed under county ordinances. It also took the lead in encouraging the county to work with farmers to keep land enrolled in the Green Acres and Metropolitan Agricultural Preserves programs. Most important, it provided a voice for farmers in the day-to-day work of the county. The task force proved so successful that earlier this year the County Board made it a permanent advisory board.
As the Star Tribune's June 24 story ("Housing comeback spurs new building") noted, development in the rural reaches of the Twin Cities is resuming once again, albeit cautiously and, in certain cases, with an eye toward locating those developments nearer to highways and jobs.
Who knows if, as the economy improves once again, urban sprawl in the Twin Cities region will ever reach the frenetic pace of the last two decades? But even if it doesn't, development will occur, and farmland -- and the multiple benefits it brings -- will be affected.
The model established in Scott County to create an active farm advisory board should be considered by other suburban Twin Cities counties. Doing so not only will create a voice for agricultural producers, it will help to ensure that the important benefits that farmland brings to the region won't be lost to the roar of bulldozers.
Jennifer Jensen and Ann Houghton are agricultural producers and members of the Scott County Farm Advisory Board.