To the point week of 2-12-09

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I REMEMBER SITTING IN A MEETING one day, and John Keeton, who was then the Switzerland County Extension Agent, was talking about the process of rezoning agricultural land to residential and/or commercial zoning.

As he looked across the table, John talked about the loss of farmland not only in this county, but across the country.

That’s when he made a statement that I’ve never forgotten:

“No one will care about losing farmland until they’re hungry.”

He was right.

Every year thousands of acres of farmland is lost to commercial and residential “progress”. Most of that occurs on farmland that surrounds metropolitan areas, but it happens here, too.

If you read this column you know I’m not a farmer, but I did play one as a teenager – sort of.

Because my maternal grandfather was a farmer, and my mom was an only child, my two brothers and I got to be the farmhands as we were growing up.

My older brother and my younger brother loved it, and are still involved in agriculture in one way or another.

I run a newspaper – enough said.

I was never in love with farming the way my brothers were – and are – but the time that I spent on the farm was time that I gained an appreciation for how hard farmers work and how vital they are to a way of life that we all take for granted.

In 1960, an American farmer fed 25 people on average. Today, that same single farmer has to produce enough food to feed 129 people. Some of that is thanks to technology in agriculture, but another aspect of it is that more and more farmland is being used for other purposes, so farmers have to do more with less.

But that may be changing.

In a recent study that was released, the amount of farm acreage being lost is going down.

From 1997 to 2002, the State of Indiana lost an average of 90,000 acres of farmland each year. Most of that was for the development of residential and commercial space, with housing subdivisions leading the way.

If you’re on this planet, you know that many people built and bought houses over that same time span, and are now in trouble financially with them.

Thanks in part of the recession, from 2002 to 2007, the state lost about 70,000 acres a year of farmland – down from previous years.

In the U.S. Department of Agriculture study, which is conducted every five years, Indiana currently has 14.8 million acres of farmland, which represents a loss of just under two-percent over the five year period.

Now, as housing and commercial development both stall because of the economy, the silver lining in the dark cloud is that with fewer companies looking to build, it’s saving valuable farmland for now – and for our future.

In this country we have been spoiled because of the abundance that we have come to enjoy over our lifetimes. But that abundance has also made us somewhat forgetful that things can turn around – and quickly.

Just ask someone who bought a big SUV or a large truck a couple of years ago, only to see gas prices go over $4 last year – and the resale value of that vehicle virtually disappear.

Yes, every area of the country needs development and jobs; but perhaps tax incentives could be given to businesses who locate to and renovate existing factories rather than build new ones.

Perhaps retail shops could be given incentives to expand their current locations, rather than move just down the road and build a whole new building, leaving the other building sitting empty with no new occupant.

The rise in interest in using corn as an alternative fuel has caused prices to rise in recent years, and as farmers see the opportunity to make larger profits from their crops, it makes the idea of selling their farms and getting out of the business get more and more remote.

Each and every time a new structure is built in this area, farmland is sacrificed. Some say it is in the name of progress.

But perhaps progress will come with a price.