City Hall at the Farm Gates

January 2, 2016 02:56 AM

Clash of the present for farming and urban sprawl

Farms can die with a whimper, not a bang, when the grabbing hands of local government arrive. The days of empty acreage rolling off a farmer’s front porch are gone in many parts of the U.S., replaced with urban sprawl. Cities once drew in rural communities with economic promise, but the gravitational pull has reversed. 


When city expansion nibbles around the edges of an operation, erosion of landowner will is often the tacit intention. However, legacy and livelihood are a wedded pair for many farmers. Stripped down, when city hall approaches the family farm, producers close ranks, engage or take a buyout.

Brandon Whitt, Batey Farms,  looks out from a portion of his Rutherford County, Tenn., land and sees McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway and several major hotels against the backdrop of an interstate. Whitt doesn’t deal with possibility—city impact has already arrived. Batey Farms is a hog, row crop and hay operation located 6 miles northwest of Murfreesboro, Tenn., one of the five fastest growing cities in the U.S.

Many of Whitt’s farming neighbors willingly put their land up for annexation. Whitt farms 2,000 acres, and it averages a whopping $35,000 per acre. This is the reality of demand. Portions of his acreage could be sold by the square foot. The Batey Farms operation dates to 1807, established under a Revolutionary War land grant. When farming roots run 200 years deep, legacy pride takes a powerful grip on preservation. 

In 2013, Batey Farms successfully lobbied for a Tennessee law limiting a city’s ability to annex land. “The only way they can annex land now is by written consent from the landowner,” Whitt says. “They can’t just take your land.”

Whitt worked with Tennessee Farm Bureau representatives for two years, drafting language limiting city land authority. He lobbied state legislators as the farmland protection bill became law. “Our greatest accomplishment was returning actual rights to the property owner; a way to preserve land regardless of what elected officials want,” he says.

With annexation in check, Whitt still faces the reality of change. With 40,000 cars passing by his farm each day (excluding interstate traffic), Whitt took stock of his options and chose innovation. Batey Farms has added ag retail to its traditional farming operation, offering pork products, berry picking, an event center and commercial kitchen. 

“What I see from the conflict is opportunity,” Whitt says. “We offer people with no farming experience the ability to step off the beaten path and have a timeless experience. They walk away from city life and find out what farming is really like.” 

In 2007, Batey Farms faced a hammer blow. A developer proposed a major theme park on 400 acres of neighboring land—ground Whitt rents. The park would have ripped a gash down the middle of Batey Farms with a five-lane thoroughfare. At the time, Whitt and his father-in-law John L. Batey lobbied hard against the park. Personal feelings were damaged between farming friends, but the county commission ultimately voted against the park. 

“Where do you start and stop? I want to protect what I have but not take away what someone else wants to have,” Whitt says. “We belong to this land, so we pick and choose our battles.”

To protect farmland, Jake Carter, left, and father, Jimmy, want all options on the table. “I never want to tie the hands of my grandchildren,” Jake says. 

Surrounded by subdivisions and houses on 18,000 sq. ft. lots, Southern Belle Farm is just 30 miles from Atlanta. The scene is much different than fifth-generation farmer Jake Carter grew up with—lots of kudzu and dirt roads. Population in Henry County, is 220,000 people and projected to nearly double by 2020. When city encroachment began, developers dished out dollar signs Carter’s farming neighbors had never seen. Tracts went for $70,000 per acre, but Southern Belle remained.

Carter views city expansion as a “double-edged sword” and deals with it through agritourism. “We’re all faced with circumstances unique to our land. You can’t turn back the hands of time. We want to pass on our farming heritage to the next generation and if we refuse to change, we’ll be a dinosaur,” Carter explains.

Southern Belle hosts numerous seasonal farming activities and is beginning construction on a retail barn market with a bakery. More than 20,000 kids visit Southern Belle each year, catering to more than 40 elementary schools in the area. “Many have never set foot on a farm and never will again, but this is the future electorate and they’ll be voting on farm-related issues,” Carter says.

Several years back, an activist group petitioned Henry County to mark Southern Belle as a green space. Carter fought hard to keep landowner rights at the forefront and defeated green-zone designation. 

“It’s alarming to think what might have happened if a different set of elected officials were in office. It shows the importance of staying involved in the community,” he says, noting that going green might have affected future farming generations. “You can stay inside your fence rows and be comfortable for the short term, or you can get outside and work for long-term preservation.”

Not surprisingly, legal issues are more prevalent when a strong economy propels urban sprawl. Rusty Rumley, senior staff attorney, National Agricultural Law Center, consistently gets calls from farmers dealing with annexation, nuisance suits and eminent domain. His advice is for farmers to seek protection from right-to-farm statutes and choose a local attorney who knows the members of city council and all players involved. 

“Let the public know about your operation and answer their questions. The return isn’t immediate but will come down the road,” Rumley notes. “Sure, sometimes you have to fight it out in court, but preventive actions are possible. Fight it off at the pass.”

Every zoning, annexation or nuisance case is unique, but farmers need to maintain good community relations, advises Mark Thornburg, director of legal affairs, Indiana Farm Bureau. “Don’t just show up only when you’re against something. Don’t make knee-jerk reactions. There are good people on these city boards. Behaving rationally and right goes a long way toward getting a decision to go your way.”

Still, legal battles are sometimes the only option. “Producers need to be prepared to secure counsel experienced in agricultural law to enforce their rights in court when necessary,” he says.

Whitt doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of managing a farming operation in an urban environment. There are traffic problems, litter, trespassing and more. It’s a balancing act requiring a constant vigil. “Many farmers are facing or are on the cusp of dealing with these exact problems. Remember, if the community only sees you fighting against something, you won’t have any credibility,” Whitt warns. 

Keeping Batey Farms thriving means seizing every opportunity to build rapport with the chamber of commerce, city council and local businesses. “How do you balance preservation and growth? That’s an oxymoron—you have to jump in the middle.”

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