Farms, Planning, and a Vision for Our State


With questions arising about the state government’s expanded plan to purchase farmland (perhaps then leasing it to new farmers with government strings attached, naturally), I’ve been looking into the history and mechanics of the state’s current program.  Among the more interesting documents I’ve found is this 2010 report from the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.

The Land Trust Council is a state-level umbrella group pulling together local land trust groups.  Technically, it’s not an organization, but “a project of Third Sector New England (TSNE).”  TSNE is a $30+ million per year non-profit that seeks “to shift power and influence in our society by actively engaging with our constituents in order to hold responsible the systems that affect our lives” — basically supporting local groups that are “guided by principles of social and economic justice.”

For some perspective, Executive Director Jonathan Spack takes home a quarter-million dollars per year in pay and other compensation, the highest of the organization’s eight six-figure salaries.  Since 2011, the TSNE has received between $500,000 and $2 million from the federal government each year, and around $100,000 per year from the state government of Rhode Island for each of the past three years.

I’ve still got some work to do getting up to speed on the program of current controversy, but reading the 2010 report made me wonder: Why is the state government engaged in this activity?

Don’t get me wrong; local farms and producers of any kind are great.  One of the habits that I’ve expanded as I’ve edged away from near-poverty has been to seek out local sources for honey, produce, fish, and so on, and aesthetically, I love the character of Tiverton, spanning from working farmland to a near-urban northern section.  But as the report acknowledges, local farms can’t really compete on price and convenience with larger companies that can produce, ship, and market products less expensively.  In our advanced society, that’s a telltale indicator that, for the most part, Rhode Island isn’t the best place to be farming, especially considering the constant complaints that the state lacks “affordable housing.”

To some extent, then, subsidizing farmland is a transfer of wealth to support the aesthetic and products enjoyed by a relatively wealthy class of Rhode Islanders.  Not being a progressive, I don’t intend that statement as an implicit condemnation, but as a factor we have to consider.

The problem with all of our land trusting and comprehensive planning is that it seeks to impose a vision for our communities by assumption.  As with TSNE’s mission, the principles are implied and assumed to be good.  One suspects that this is so because a fully informed public would not go along with the progressive scheme if everything were placed openly on the scale.  Which would win: large open space used mainly to produce food that can more cheaply be made elsewhere and benefiting the relatively few people who encounter the bucolic scenery or the availability of a range of housing at prices that people can afford?

Personally, I don’t think government should be a mechanism for a small, relatively wealthy group to take money from a larger, relatively poor group in order to freeze their environment in place.  But I do generally agree with the stated values of the smaller group and believe we should express those values in the form of money… our own money.  One suspects, again, that we’d learn something about people’s real values if they had to prove them with real pricing.  A $12 jar of local honey is one thing; a $30 jar would be quite another.  (Of course, there might then emerge a business that finds some innovative way to salvage an identical end product at a cost of $21 per jar.)

There might, indeed, be a role for government in these transactions at a very local level, but it would require the state and federal governments to admit that it isn’t their role to foster harmony and somebody’s vision of “fairness” from border to border.  If people acting through town government decided that their local values necessitated subsidized farms, then over time, the town would attract a mix of people for whom the balance of benefits and taxes works, but that would mean some people probably couldn’t afford to live there.

If we’re honest, though, as our system currently works, everybody’s paying tax and opportunity costs for things that other people value but they do not; the system’s just too complex to trace.  You can be confident, though, that we call the powerless “disadvantaged” for a reason.  The values of the political class and the big-money non-profits are the values of elites, and they naturally believe their values ought to be subsidized.  If they’re not paying full price for the things they want, then the rest of us must be losing out.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    While Rhode Island is too densely populated for this to subside, rural Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts are dotted with abandoned farms. “Real Farmers” gave up trying to farm rocks and hillsides around 1850, they then moved to the mid west. We studied this in high school. The idea that farmers are closer to God and deserve subsidy as the backbone of American democracy is embedded in American philosophy, being known as the “Agrarian Myth”.

    A sign on abandoned farms in RI are the stone walls running through what are now woods. Those were once fields which have been abandoned and returned to nature. I remember being amused when a friend wondered aloud why they had built stone walls through woods. My house sits on what was once a large farm. In the undeveloped areas of the neighborhood there is a huge pile of rocks for every acre, or so. These were removed from the fields by farmers, no wonder they moved to the mid west.