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Urban sprawl threatens food, too

This weekend I was driving around my old stomping grounds and I spotted exurban development within eight miles of the farm I grew up on. These are no longer single houses tucked into odd tree stands, but housing developments built on prime farmland.
By Susanne Retka Schill | August 15, 2011

I grew up on an old-fashioned, diversified small farm in southern Minnesota about 50 miles southwest of Minneapolis. My nephew still farms Pa’s quarter and eighty – and quite a few acres more than that, raising primarily corn and soybeans. I’ve lived in North Dakota over 30 years, but I do make it back home about once a year for a wedding or reunion or some other event.

For the last decade, I can’t help but notice how much the Twin Cities keeps moving out. Every time I’d go home, I’d see new houses being tucked into any spot with trees. Any old farmsteads have long ago been bought up, and either the old farm house restored or a new house built. It’s pretty obvious when the transition has taken place from a working farm to a hobby farm.

This weekend I was driving around my old stomping grounds and I spotted exurban development within eight miles of the farm I grew up on. These are no longer single houses tucked into odd tree stands, but housing developments built on prime farmland. I believe Minnesota has laws in place protecting farmland from the property tax inflation that happens when urbanization moves into farm country. It is still virtually impossible, however, for a farmer to find affordable land to buy.

Now this isn’t a new story. Urban sprawl has been happening for a century or better. But my question is, where are the people worried about the food versus houses problem? I wonder just what the impact of urban sprawl has been on the nation’s food supply as housing gobbles up farmland. Certainly, I remember truck farms on the western edge of the Twin Cities growing vegetables for the city that are now covered with asphalt and manicured grass. I hear that the immigrants, particularly the Hmong, have become quite the truck gardeners in another corner of the metropolitan area, although finding places where they can grow their gardens is a problem.

I now work in Grand Forks, N.D., which is located in the Red River Valley with its incredibly rich soils. I believe this region ranks with the black soils of the Ukraine as having the most productive agricultural land on earth. There is nary a word written – literally, because I read the local daily newspaper – about the impact on our food supply when yet another field gets converted into housing or some other development. Instead, there’s much celebration of progress.

Some have picked corn-based ethanol as THE evil that must be closely watched to be sure its expansion is halted or slown down, because of all the potential impacts on food and our natural resources. Urban sprawl is probably just as much a threat.