G-Sync: The Greater Good

After a tense Nov. 7 Kent County meeting over farmland preservation, Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen set out to look at the accountability factors surrounding this issue. With his positive gaze on smart growth that considers our social and economic future above political posturing, he's talking about our greater good this week.
The infection of partisanship that afflicts DC and Lansing is clearly at work in our county government now, when the public is denied the right to lend its voice to the process regarding an important matter.

From within our county’s chambers, leadership sought to limit the public comment of farmers, restaurant owners, citizens, and business leaders who took off time to make their voices heard. Since the Nov. 7 meeting, a decade of statesmanship via county commissioners who tirelessly labored to install a climate of understanding based on shared values worth aligning ourselves together on was signaled to be truly over.  

On the minds of those who gathered that day: If our county commission elects to ignore the greater good in preserving farmland -- not just for our present but also our future -- then we run the very real risk of impeding the farming industry that truly settled our region and is the modern driving force in so many ways as to why people and businesses continue to flock to our region and call it their new home.

When they voted to limit the affirming of this program to just one representative they stifled the very diversity of thought that makes our food movement so wonderful here in our region and to the world.

Today I raise my voice to call us to a higher purpose, to echo Commissioner Talen who said so beautifully, “We can, and should, do better!”

That is my goal this week: to think on how we can move forward … together.

The issue that brought so many out to this meeting was the topic of the county’s Farmland Preservation Program (a Purchase of Development Rights or PDR) that would enact smart planning as a rule of the county in an attempt to preserve just 25,000 acres of our world-renowned farmland – a region which produces so much bounty that we are referred to in the agribusiness circles as the fruit belt, with an emphasis on the diverse array of apples we can successfully grow here.

Preservation’s Endangerment
Farmland preservation is not new. In fact, it's been a successful public-private partnership, both nationally and in Kent County, for years. But in 2010, after a decade of bi-partisan solutions, the balance of power and discussion was tipped as many newly elected voices rode in to office on the promise to starve and kill off this program.

The opposition has painted these programs as an impediment to the free market when, upon closer inspection, the public good is what hangs in the balance. The opposition would have us believe that this type of preservation behavior cuts off their access to options. Yet it is worth noting that we already enact many such restrictions within planning, which, in the interest of redefining our true mission, should be called smart “community planning” going forward.

When we cluster centers of development via zoning for different types of use, we are in fact exercising good governance. It is showing leadership to plan with an eye on the proven studies that show the ways zoning, planning and preservation better the community. It's worthwhile to remember that these needs are just as valid as the market forces.

And those who would have us believe that this preservation is a bad use of public tax dollars have simply not crunched the numbers. The cost to sustain boundless growth moving forward -- with the mandate to provide services like utilities plus costly items like fire and police -- in an era of austerity measures simply does not make dollars or sense in comparison to the low cost it takes to create the farmland preservation zones proposed in the program.  

In fact, the cost to the county will be even greater if smart community planning does not include a Farmland Preservation Program.

While on the topic of costs, those who would argue that this is a poor use of taxpayer dollars should sing from a new hymnal since representative democracy rests on the concept that tax dollars (or free extension of tax credits) are often being spent on items that might not always align with a single individual's personal, professional or corporate goals.

Furthermore, this is not just a “use of public funds” issue.

Since the beginning of this program in 2002 the commission and area leaders have sought to harness and leverage our public dollars through an often-praised public-private partnership that we hear so much about in government chambers these days. Private foundations, like the Frey, Wege and Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF), have indeed stepped up to ensure that we leverage that investment to the fullest for this program.

Good ROI
Supporters of the Farmland Preservation have shown that for every one dollar of public funds we invest, we are able to leverage three dollars from federal, state and other grants, including from our area foundations -- who have given hundreds of thousands that have been allowed to simply sit on the table unused because our county does not value these gifts which protect the very land we will need in the coming years to feed our residents and attract people to our region.

Studies previously reported in Rapid Growth show that by 2030, 75 percent of the world’s population will be living in an urban center. This is not to say that sprawl is over, but it is declining. When you consider the benefits of a dense city, a community focused on planned density, the greater good is a good use of our public dollars when the return is this great on our investment.

Ignore the studies if you like but a quick phone call to any realtor in the Grand Rapids area will reveal that the hottest markets are places like East Hills, Heritage Hill, Downtown Grand Rapids as well as Madison Square, which all have close proximity to services as well as another important attractant to these neighborhoods: the farmers markets they host.

Talk to any farmer about the growth he is experiencing on his farm and you will quickly see we are growing our demand at an exciting rate; agriculture was the only industry, according to state officials, to do so during the recession. And local restaurants are clamoring for locally sourced produce more than ever.

Yet as GRCF’s Marcia Rapp, VP of Programs has pointed out, just as demand is rising, the rate of farmland disappearing is alarming. “We need a program that not only protects and encourages farmers to not sell off their land for a quick development sale but show that we value their contribution to our society,” says Rapp.

Farmers Farm
As Commissioner Talen pointed out recently, there are those who might say the farmer who receives this protected status will simply let the land lie fallow or unused. This is simply not true, as farmers not only want to farm, and Talen has shared that they do reinvest back into their land. Farmers want to farm and want to be able to continue to pass down this tradition in our community to the next generations to follow. Studies have shown that, at an alarming rate, young farmers are leaving the land to seek the comfort of another life because farming is not big business. It has risks, so why not minimize them and help retain this way of life?

When we elect to only listen to the market forces argument of the private sector, the public’s voice is extinguished, much as we have seen in the behavior of our elected officials at the county. If we elect leaders to just serve those voices with access via funding of election campaigns, past employ or even, the most damaging of modern politics, the single issue voter, then these matters run the risk of creating greater imbalance in our community, shutting down smart growth.

The Solution
Smart planning is what is needed here. It is the silver bullet that makes everyone happy, in my humble opinion.  

The various private foundations of Frey, Wege and Grand Rapids Community Foundation since 2004 have hosted four site visits to Lancaster, PA, where county commissions were able to see firsthand the nation's benchmark program for what we are still trying to enact here.

Nearly everyone who has visited this site has come back incredibly moved by how it works so beautifully. Even folks who were opposed to preservation of farmland have returned with a fire to lock up land for the future. We need to get back to the table on this issue before November 21, when it is possible the commission will vote to destroy the good work many before them enacted through incredible teamwork around the fact that our food system is not partisan.

Economic Chick(en) Magnet
The final argument is a sexy one: the economic benefits of our preservation efforts. Farming is Michigan’s 2nd largest industry and is the fastest-growing sector of our economy. Kent County ranks 5th in the state as the most agriculturally productive county, with an annual market value of $149 million, according to AccessKent.

“West Michigan is an emerging leader in the 'buy local, eat fresh' scene, especially with Grand Rapids’ newest farm-to-table destination, The Downtown Market, which is estimated to be worth $775 million to the West Michigan economy,” says West Michigan Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters’ Patty Birkholz. “It will create 1300 jobs in the next ten years. West Michigan is growing its local economy by growing food locally.”

If we preserve the land, we preserve the ability to take care of ourselves should a food crisis emerge in the future. Considering the recent news items about tainted foods and our addiction to cheap products from overseas in countries far less strict then we are, it just makes sense to promote food security in our region.  

It could not be a better time to be an American agriculture producer. Chinese-based Suanghui International’s Wan Lung has noticed that the rising middle class of his country does not trust China’s rapidly developing economic development to safely protect their food system. Time Magazine reported in "Taking the Bacon" (Nov. 18, 2013) that after discovering a banned additive clenbuterol, Wan offered what is probably the closest thing to an apology, but is also purchasing Smithfield Foods, the U.S.’s largest porcine farmer.  If the market is pointing towards greater trust for our products, why cut off the opportunity?

The market forces on the other side of this issue (or to be more clear, those businesses who have quietly and without fanfare been championing items local and farm fresh) have been steadily over the years quietly adopting newer standards to what they offer the public. From breweries to restaurants to even Meijer stores -- who recently added a prominent display at the entry of their store devoted to showcasing the bounty of our region’s food and farms -- it just makes good sense that, in a time of increased attraction and relocation to West Michigan, we go back to the table and begin talks about how to enact smart planning that takes farmland preservation into consideration at the county level.

Birkholz, who spoke last week to the Kent County Commission, quoted The Right Place’s VP of Business Development Rick Chapla, who said at a recent meeting of the West Michigan Business Leaders, “Farmland is one of our primary regional economic development assets. In the West Michigan 13-county region, more than 1 million acres are in production, creating a rich and diverse crop mix second only to California.

Every time a farm is lost to development the region’s supply chain supportive of food security and the prosperity of companies like Nestle Gerber and Kellogg are compromised.”

Chapla is addressing The Right Place’s ability to attract big business to West Michigan and the economic benefits to follow. But he is also touching on a valuable lesson of the opportunities still on the table, if only the Kent County Commission will act to receive the gifts in front of them.

Should I stay or should I go now
If the county majority is able to destroy the fertile belt of agribusiness through an aggressive campaign of the few, then it is high time that we begin to think about what our future could look like here and if it is worth sticking around.

Or as a friend, who moved here more than 30 years ago remarked recently, he elected to call Grand Rapids his home because of our wonderful mix of rural and urban. He was fleeing what happened in Northern California where sprawl went unchecked.

“I watched San Francisco’s mix get destroyed as Silicon Valley, once full of peach groves, destroyed their farming community,” says Frank Lynn. “Now I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live there. You have to commute a fair distance to get a good mix of the rural and urban.”

In the end, people like Lynn and many others who I have spoken with since the commission meeting choose to live in West Michigan because they value our quality of life. This should be our first priority as we begin moving forward on this topic -- but only if the commission is willing to listen to our diverse voices.  

If they will not hear your voice (and all indicators from last week indicate they will probably not do so), then you can always send a letter, email or, as they did in Paris, France, when their farmers' way of life was in question, brought their produce to market in an unique fashion and changed the course of history, ensuring their community’s source of health and vitality was front page news. It is time for a revolution in our city and county. It is time for the people who enjoy the bounty of this region to make their voices heard. It is time to remind our elected officials in Kent County that we value the farmland that makes us the jewel of the state, and remind them of the need to preserve it for the future.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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