Dan Kaplan: Bridging the gap on farmland — an In Close Proximity essay

Last modified: Thursday, March 06, 2014
Each month the In Close Proximity column, created by the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project, discusses an aspect of relocalization, a process governments and citizens can use to create green land use, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation. The group’s associate, Dan Kaplan, discusses his views on relocalization this month.

AMHERST — I recently drove by a piece of farmland cordoned off for construction of a “solar farm.” Well, it could’ve been worse, I thought, but not exactly what I want to see for our agricultural land base. My daughter asked me “What’s wrong with a solar farm?” I replied, “it’s not that I don’t like solar energy, it’s just that there’s a 10-acre roof, sitting just behind the field, which could be a perfect place for it. And then we would still have the farmland to grow food.”

“So, why don’t they do that?” she asked. Good question.

There are many reasons landowners might build a solar project on their farmland. It could be financial (make more money selling electricity in one or two years than in many years of corn production).

It could be emotional (tired from farming all of these years for little return). It could be altruistic (solar energy keeps tons of carbon out of the atmosphere). One thing we know for sure – it’s a personal decision. And it can be, in our economy, because if you own your land, you can do what you want with it.

The decision is yours. Even if I think it’s more “rational” to put solar panels on the Hampshire Mall’s roof than on farmland, it is not my decision.

Land ownership is really important — even to people like me who sometimes complain about it. Land ownership, which is the economic version of privacy (freedom of religion, freedom of speech) has been central (and perhaps necessary) to our idea of a nation of free individuals. And while this freedom has been a core belief, when it gets played out in the environmental realm (maximizing resources, minimizing impacts), it can become difficult to get people to work together for the common good. Because, this of course begs the question: What is the common good? More simply, what can we agree on?

Here are my essential facts about farmland:

• It’s just not being made any more; there is a finite amount of arable land.

• We are dependent on this land for survival, since for the last 10,000 years we have committed ourselves to an agricultural society versus a hunter-gatherer society. How do these facts square with our ideal of independence? While we cherish our privacy, if everyone chooses to put solar farms on their farmland, we are going to have problems as a community feeding ourselves.

So, then, what will a conscientious landowner need as new thinking to bridge this gap? Here’s what David and Claire Fortier, who preserved the land that I now farm, needed to make their decision. First they needed to find value in a common good; it was important to them to preserve local farmland to feed their local community. Then they needed to have the courage and resources to act on that, even though they would suffer a financial penalty, for they would have made more money selling parcels for house lots.

Then they needed hope, and that it was desirable and possible to build a society that will “become something better” than its present state. When they preserved their land, they had no assurances this farm would feed thousands of people in the next two decades or provide an educational vehicle for many more thousands about sustainability and communal ethics.

They had no assurances, but they definitely had dreams. Lastly, they needed creativity.

They were part of the pioneering idea of selling “development rights,” which would allow them to receive a partial payment for their land in return for changing the deed to “forever farmland.” This type of new thinking came about when they worked with others to devise a mechanism to make their idea work. Now, 27 years later, there are thousands of acres preserved in the commonwealth by similar agreements.

Brookfield Farm in South Amherst produces local food on local land. A look at our history also allows people to perhaps come up with their own solutions to the problems that confront them. The individual and the community (freedom and common action), will always be in some type of conflict. Our hope is that we may encourage people to see the world as changeable, to see their actions as meaningful and to act in creative ways to bridge this conflict.

Dan Kaplan has managed Brookfield Farm for 20 years. It was established in 1986 and is believed to be the third community-supported agriculture project in the U.S. The farm produces 250,000 pounds of vegetables for over 600 families who fully support operations of the farm.