Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Saving the Family Farm

I grew up on a dairy farm in rural upstate New York, north of the mountains on the Canadian border. I would go to school in the middle of the week and on the weekends I would help my father run the farm and his 50 or so milking cows. This was a good experience for me, although hard word and one which has rewarded me with more then just a good work ethic.

It was back then that I noticed something was going in farmland, but I could never put my fingers on it. I noticed how some small farmers very near the city seemed to stay put for a long time while small and medium farms out in “Farm country” would become absorbed into one of three or four farms in the area. It always seemed counter intuitive to me and it wasn’t until I read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty that I realized what was going on. The farmers very near the city were renting out or selling land near the city every so often, the farmers out in the country never had this opportunity and simply went out of business only to become absorbed by the larger agri-corps in my region.

Even today, if you go to Plattsburgh, New York and drive on Salley Avenue, not 500 yards north of the city line there is a small farmer raising beef, with a Wal-Mart in his backyard. I kid you not. I could probably count the number of beef farmers in Clinton County on one hand, let alone one right beside the city. Occasionally he will sell off a part of his land close to the city or Wal-Mart, raising a small fortune in the process.

Now, lets go for a drive around in the country in anywhere, USA. As I drive around my local here in Dutchess, or in Hampton Roads Virginia, or Northern, IL, I always would see the same thing. Lots of stagnant land, which used to be farm land (according to people in the dinners – I’m a big dinner person) in between “the city” and where all the strip malls are at. After asking around about it, I would usually get one of two responses, either the local farmer sold off a lot of his development to the big-box stores, holding onto the more valuable land in between, because he knows that once that site gets developed and there is traffic going past it, it will sell for much more then just a tidy sum. Or, the farmer sold all of it to a developer who is doing the exact same thing.

Part of this is all fine and good. Cities grow, people build, people move. That’s just life. But, is it to this degree?

When I was living in Hampton Roads, I would always wonder why there were so many strip malls and big box stores in the outskirts when there was plenty of store space in the inner city, except it was empty or in run down buildings. Parts of the city used to be known for their shopping and now they are known for potholes. Most people I knew in Norfolk who actually lived in the city would drive out 20 miles just to go shopping. Something is wrong here, I would think. I used to think how much space was wasted in all those vast parking lots, just sitting there and hardly ever more then 50% full, all of the paved roads to interconnect all of those bigbox stores, all of those cul-de-sacs sweeping around in those cookie cutter subdivisions.

I was amazed how, near Rosendale and Witchduck, the area which was a primo suburban community was now a high poverty area and the new primo suburban community was now 10 miles past that.

In the mean time, if we drive out into the country, we see plenty of farming going on, huge gigantic agri-corps. Anyone who has drive then I-90 in Ohio and smelled the factory pig farms, or the chicken houses in Maryland on the 13 and route 1 up into Delaware, or the dairy barns so big you can barely see the end of them, or the ADMs and Monsanto’s of this world, whose chemists are bringing you some of the finest genetically altered food that government subsidies can buy.

So what is going on and how is all this inter-related? We do not tax land, instead we tax the labor and capital improvements on the land. Small farmers have a higher capital / land ratio, thus to seek a lower tax burden, they expand out or become absorbed into other farms, or they sell all their capital and own only the land, at an extremely low tax rate. If land was taxed and not capital, farmers would have an incentive to build up their capital infrastructure, invest in more labor and invest in less land, hence this would encourage more people to engage in small farming or at least, encourage them not to leave it.

Also, this would be a major boon for the organic farming industry, which uses an extremely high labor investment as well as capital in relation to the amount of land they use.

If the land was taxed and not the capital, developers would not be able to hold on to prime land in the middle of developing areas, something called checkerboard development. This sort of development, as you can imagine, is incredibly wasteful. A tax on land would ensure that only the marginal land (that land closest to the cit) would be the next land to get developed. It is no wonder our property taxes skyrocket because the costs of supporting these subdivisions is enormous compared to the city housing on the margin, roads, law enforcement, power lines, gasoline, car pollutants.