A small state with big farmland preservation efforts

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth, a dairy farmer and an attorney near Celina

Care to guess where the most expensive farmland in the country is located? Hint — it’s the smallest state in the union at 48 miles long and 37 miles wide: Rhode Island.

Any guesses as to which state has the most beginning farmers? Hint — the second most densely populated. More than a million call this tiny state home: Rhode Island.

Can you guess which state has lost the most farmland? Hint—the state has lost 80% of its farmland since 1940: Rhode Island.

According to the 2014 Census of Agriculture, Rhode Island had 1,243 farms on 69,589 acres and 71% of these farms are 10 acres or less. And 30.8% of the farmers are new.

It’s worth looking at Rhode Island’s current support of agriculture. In the midst of trade wars, tariffs, low commodity prices, and farmer suicides, Rhode Island is encouraging the local food movement where restaurants, grocers, caterers and consumers purchase directly from local farms. Many attribute this movement as the explanation for Rhode Island leading the nation in beginning farmers. Some of these new operations are owned by individuals that did not grow up on a farm or have any prior connection to the land. What they did have, however, was the ability to locate a market niche and the drive to develop a farming operation that provides food to that market.

Many of the new operations are on rented land. The state of Rhode Island recently created the Farm Acquisition Program to enable these operations on rented ground to purchase land. The state will purchase land at the appraised value, then sell the land to the farmer for its agricultural value, approximately 20% of its market value. Since Rhode Island is so small, the development pressure on land is huge. The state retains the development rights to make sure that the land remains farmland.

Rhode Island wants those entrepreneurs, those spirited people who build an agricultural business, to stay in Rhode Island and not have to leave to find cheaper land in some other state. Rhode Island strives to produce half of its own food by 2060. That is a noble goal, as Rhode Island currently produces about 1% of its own food.

Rhode Island created a new program that addressed one of the concerns facing its farmers, the inability to purchase farmland due to the booming real estate market. As one farmer explains, “What I see as enough land to grow food for 130 families, a developer would see as enough land to build eight McMansions.”

Rhode Island did the math. The farms create jobs and income. The McMansions merely consume. In 2015, agriculture accounted for 2,563 jobs in the state and contributed $239 million to the economy. Both figures increased 40% from 2012.

Rhode Island took the initiative, created a program, and funded it. The Farm Acquisition Program received $3 million as part of the Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities bond issues approved by RI voters in 2014.

The Farm Acquisition Program is not Rhode Island’s first effort to address their farmers’ needs. They already have an existing farmland preservation program that purchases development rights in exchange for development restrictions. Also, Rhode Island leases two large properties they own — Snake Den Farm in Johnston and Urban Edge Farm in Cranston — to farmers at below-market rates.

Instead of rhetoric or pleas for federal intervention, Rhode Island crafted programs that address the needs of their farmers. I can only hope other states follow their lead.

Rhode Island’s innovative support of their farmers is true to their independent streak. It was the only state to reject ratification of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol in 1920. Rhode Island was also the first of the original 13 colonies to renounce allegiance to Great Britain in 1776 and was the last to ratify the Constitution in 1790, insisting that the Bill of Rights be added.

Nice job, Ocean State!

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