One of the responses we have had from those who participated in our readings last month is that we have included so many themes and questions in the narrative of our play it is difficult to tell what the heart of the story is. As Cory mentioned in a recent post, our topic has a BIG PICTURE and there are many cans of worms that could be included in a discussion of Maine agriculture.
Back in January, when I was at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, I stumbled into a lively discussion of one of these worm cans, and I learned a lot about the complexity of the idea of farmland preservation. Access to land is a topic that plays a large role in the lives of Maine farmers, and as an outsider it is easy to oversimplify the problem and its solutions. While there is not a lot of time in our play to focus exclusively on the politics of land use or the idea of farmland preservation, human relationships to land to play a central role in the lives of our characters. So - these are some of the things that I have learned:
- Location Matters. A prominent element of the farmland preservation movement is a response to the rapid development of low-density housing communities across land that was formerly used for production. Once the land is developed, it is no longer available for the production of food or other natural resources. This creates a competition for land between farmers and developers. The market currently favors the developer. According to John Piotti of the Maine Farmland Trust, the market hasn’t yet figured out what the value of farmland as farmland is. All land value is assigned based on real estate development potential. In any given community, the “cost” of preserving farmland will depend on the real estate values and demand for housing in that particular area. In many areas of Maine, those not adjacent to urban/suburban centers, development pressures do not exist. In these areas, the preservation tools that have been developed for population centers do little good to preserve working farmland. Preservation attempts in these areas must address successful land transfer between generations and business support for farmers who cannot afford or manage to keep their land in production.
- Value is subjective. A common tool of the farmland preservation movement is the “agricultural easement”. The farmer gives development rights on some portion of his/her land to a third party (a land trust for instance). The farmer either makes a full gift of the rights, receiving tax benefits for the gift, or they receive payment for the rights from the third party. Unlike most traditional conservation easements, in an agricultural easement, the land may continue to be farmed. Ideally, the third party receives the assurance that open space will not be lost, the current farmer receives some capital to maintain her business, and future farmers are able to purchase the land at its agricultural value (rather than its real estate value, which is often financially prohibitive for farmers). The challenge is that the value of the land, and of the easement, will look different to each of the stakeholders. Many easements fail to clearly define every detail of the agreement up front, leaving questions of ownership and responsibility open to interpretation and conflicts to be resolved after the fact. One attendee of the Ag Show stated: “an easement is what the best attorney and the biggest bully says it is.”
- We are learning as we go. Because every piece of land is different, every farm family is different, and every business is different, no instance of farmland preservation will be exactly like another. The central players involved in multiple preservation transactions (the Dept. of Ag, the Maine Farmland Trust) are learning from past experiences and carrying the knowledge they’ve acquired into new arrangements. However, each new project presents new challenges. These are some of the questions that must be answered when planning an ag easement:
- How much land will go under easement?
Will the land be protected in one piece, or can it be divided? How big can each of the pieces of be?
Can buildings of any kind be developed on the land? Where? How many? What kind? (Housing for farmers, storage facilities, retail spaces . . .?)
What kinds of improvements (roads and drainage, infrastructure changes) may be made on the land?
These agreements are quite binding and can be very difficult to change. The details can also have a lasting impact on the individuals that own, rent, farm, and use the land. The land that John and Stacy rent from the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust is more than 400 acres large and it was preserved in one piece. It cannot be divided and sold to multiple landowners. John and Stacy are interested in purchasing the land that they farm, but the cost of purchasing 400 acres in Scarborough is prohibitive for them, even with the development rights removed. 400 acres is also more land than they want or need to manage. Stacy has told me that changing the easement to allow the SLCT to sell a portion of the land would require an act of the U.S. Congress.
The central challenge of farmland preservation, as with all community planning, seems to be the requirement that we look forward with eyes that are firmly planted in the realities of today. It seems evident that our individual and community needs are changing. The agricultural policies and regulations of our government, the education and communication programs that have served previous generations need to change in order to serve our communities today, and presumably to serve those of the future. The question is: who should decide? Which perspectives will be honored, supported, and reflected in our laws and policies?
Each person with a stake or concern in a problem will approach that problem from their own perspective – bringing to bear their own experiences, hopes, and fears. It is only human, and only natural, that an individual cannot see all of the pieces of a picture by him/herself. By making a choice from my perspective, I am likely to inadvertently impact those around me. One farmer claims that the result of land trusts preserving farmland in his area is an increase in the value of his land that raises his taxes. “How do you build things,” another farmer asks, “without having these kinds of negative impacts? Am I making my neighbor’s taxes go up?”
How do we make choices for our future as a community? How do we move forward, learn from our mistakes and our successes, face our current challenges, and prepare for the unknown as a community? I would like to hope that some part of the answer lies in the act of telling and hearing stories. If we can begin by acknowledging that we are blind without our own stories and the stories of our neighbors, if we can practice our ability to listen and to tell, maybe we can learn to think from another’s perspective. Maybe we can begin to understand the big picture.
There is a lot of work remaining for the artists, farmers, and community partners of OFAF. But regardless of the form our play finally takes, I am grateful for the process we are now engaged in. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear, retell, choose, and shape multiple stories. It is the process of choosing and shaping these stories with the diverse members of our project’s community that is the greatest gift to me, nurturing my understanding, supporting my growth as an artist and a human being.