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Local Farms. Local Food

By Joel Houser, Fall 2015

Let’s face it- we love local food because it is just better. The thing is that we can’t have local food without local farms. A farm is a lot of things. It is the land, the farmers, inputs, roads leading in and out of the farm. It is the consumer.  It is people and life. The farm is our past as well as our future. Farms feed us and clothe us. What could be more important than farms?

Beyond providing food and fiber, food security and a local food supply, farms support our region in other ways. Agrarian landscapes in the valleys of our region help create our sense of place and reinforce our agricultural heritage. Farms support a viable rural agricultural economy and provide environmental and rural amenities. Furthermore, farmland offers wildlife habitat as well as the potential for groundwater recharge and reduction of surface water runoff.

We hear a lot about the problems that face agriculture and rural America. Farmers in the Chattanooga region face the same problems as farmers everywhere: inconsistent markets, an unpredictable climate, aging workers, global competition, and rising land costs with increased pressure from development. The list seems to go on and on. As with many problems, the challenges seem to outweigh opportunities. This just isn’t the case with agriculture, however. We have solutions and you can be part of them.

Agriculture is the top grossing industry in both Georgia and Tennessee. In Tennessee, it provides over 350,000 jobs and contributes $71.4 billion (with a B!) to the state’s economy annually. Food and fiber production are booming. As of now, as a sector, agriculture is a healthy industry and we would like to see it remain that way. On our current trajectory, however, the future is uncertain. Though many problems that the industry faces can (and will) be remedied, there are a couple of threats that are more alarming. The largest two threats to agriculture are the loss of farmland and the growing age of farmers.

Our present rate of farmland loss is damning. In the last 5 years, Tennessee has lost 3,000 farms representing 600,000 acres of farmland, 11% more loss than the national average. That is a staggering number and it was calculated in a time of economic uncertainty and a slow housing market. Now that we are experiencing the much-anticipated upswing of the economy, we can expect the rate of defarming to increase. Land is finite and the conversion of farmland to development is irreversible. Farmland is ripe for development and asphalt is the final crop. This loss of farmland compounds the issues caused by the aging population of farmers.

Nationwide, the average age of principal farm operators (the farmer) is 58.3, 17 years older than other American workers on average. In our tristate region, the average age is over 59 for each state. The high average age indicates that young people are not entering the industry at the same rate as prior generations. Beyond a shrinking population of farmers (think food security), this can be expected to lead to a loss of generational knowledge, idling farmland and a general reshaping of rural America. Questions of land use and subdivision of farms come with each generation, and the trends that we are currently seeing indicate that times, in fact, are not changing.

Each of these two hurdles feed each other. As prime farmland is lost, remaining farmland becomes more valuable (classic supply vs. demand). As farmland becomes more valuable, young, beginning farmers are less likely to be able to afford to start a successful farm and farming career. Furthermore, valuable knowledge disappears with the disappearance of each passing farmer, reducing the likelihood of the next generation to create and operate successful businesses that put food on their table as well as yours.  

Similar efforts can be used to both curb the rate of farmland loss as well as encouraging younger farmers to farm as a primary occupation. Efforts should focus on building and maintaining the rural agricultural economy as well as conserving farmland and improving access to it. Building and maintaining the rural agricultural economy is a delicious prospect; it simply requires eating local foods and using local goods. Farmland preservation can be accomplished through a variety of methods, but the most popular and permanent is through conservation easements. Agricultural conservation easements restrict development and subdivision rights on farmland, thus conserving it for future generations and lowering the market price of the property for future farmers.

There are many ways that you can do your part to support our local farms. First and foremost, you should vote with your dollars. Buy local and patronize businesses that do. Support organizations that are working to solve the problem, such as Crabtree Farms (crabtreefarms.org) and The Land Trust for Tennessee (landtrusttn.org). Crabtree Farms has worked to connect Chattanoogans to our local foodshed since 1998 and The Land Trust for Tennessee has protected nearly 30,000 acres of farmland in Tennessee. Put an Ag Tag on your car, enjoy a day at a farm and take the long way home to appreciate the beauty and majesty of our region’s farmland.