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When City Hall Walks on the Farm

11:00AM Dec 22, 2015

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 long gone in many parts of the United States, replaced with the age of urban sprawl. Cities once drew in rural communities with economic promise, but the gravitational pull has reversed. Creep, crawl or sprint, when cities rub against farmland, producers are often left holding two cards: fight or flight.

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

Brandon Whitt, 36, Batey Farms, Rutherford County, Tenn., looks out from a portion of his land and sees McDonald’s, Walmart, Subway, and several major hotels against the backdrop of an interstate. Whitt doesn’t deal with possibility, maybe or tomorrow – city impact has already arrived. Batey Farms is a hog, row crop and hay operation located six miles northwest of Murfreesboro, one of the top five fastest growing cities in the United States.

Many of Whitt’s farming neighbors willingly have put their land up for annexation. Whitt farms 2,000 acres of ground and all of 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,” says Whitt. “They can’t mash their thumb on your head and just take your land.”

Whitt worked with Tennessee Farm Bureau representatives for two years drafting language limiting city land authority. After the language draft, Whitt 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 describes.

With annexation in check, Whitt still faced the reality of change. With 40,000 cars passing directly 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 package, offering pork products, berry picking, an event center and commercial kitchen. “What I see from the conflict is opportunity. 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,” Whitt says.

In 2007, Batey Farms faced a hammer blow. A developer proposed a major theme park on 400 acres of neighboring land – ground Whitt was renting. The park would have ripped a gash down the middle of Batey Farms with a five-lane thoroughfare. 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 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 and so we pick and choose our battles.”

Double-Edged Sword

Southern Belle Farm, Henry County, Ga., is a mere 30 miles from Atlanta. Presently at 220,000, Henry County is projected to have 400,000 people by 2020. Fifth-generation producer Jake Carter grew up with plenty of kudzu and dirt roads around Southern Belle, but the operation is now surrounded by subdivisions and houses lined in 18,000 sq. foot lots. When city encroachment began, developers dished out dollar signs Carter’s farming neighbors had never seen. Tracts went for $70,000 per acre. Concrete covered the other farms, but Southern Belle remained.

Carter viewed city expansion as a “double-edged sword” and dealt 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 offers a host of seasonal farming activities and is beginning construction on a retail barn market with a bakery. The different farm seasons revolve around educational school tours catering to more than 40 elementary schools in the area. Over 20,000 kids pass through Southern Belle each year. “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. We’re very fortunate to have the opportunity,” says Carter.

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 fore 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. Bottom line: Carter wants all options left on the table. “I never want to tie the hands of my grandchildren. Go green and my grandchildren can’t profit from the land in a commercial sense,” Carter explains.

Carter is active at all levels of local government and advises ag producers to keep good relations with neighbors and community. “You can stay inside your fencerows and be comfortable for the short-term, or you can get outside and work for long-term preservation.”

Case by Case

Rusty Rumley, senior staff attorney, National Agricultural Law Center, consistently gets calls from across the U.S. from producers dealing with annexation, nuisance suits, and eminent domain. The volume of calls is cyclical, running high when a strong economy propels urban sprawl. Rumley’s advice? Seek protection from right to farm statues 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 on borderline cases. Fight it off at the pass.”

Every zoning, annexation or nuisance case is unique, but producers should be proactive in maintaining good community relations, advises Mark Thornburg, director of legal affairs, Indiana Farm Bureau. “Don’t just show up only when you’re against something. Show empathy and don’t make knee-jerk reactions because there are good people on some of these city boards. Behaving rationally and right goes a long way toward getting a decision to go your way.”

Thornburg believes producers should cultivate relationships with local officials, but he also notes that 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.”

Balancing Act

Whitt doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of managing a farming operation in an urban environment: traffic problems, litter, trespassing and much more. It’s a tough 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 requires constant movement, admits Whitt. He seizes every opportunity to build rapport with the chamber of commerce, city council members and local businesses. “How do you balance preservation and growth? That’s an oxymoron and you have to jump in the middle.”