Land Management to Stop Housing Development’s Role in the Climate Crisis
Updated: Jun 11
This perspective is based on a conversations with Dave Ellum, Dean of Land and the Director of the Center for Working Lands at Warren Wilson College
Have you seen these little signs on country roads or in gas stations that read “Lot for sale”?
My mom’s family recently sold its farm in Pennsylvania.
My grandfather, who was a Ukrainian coal-miner, saved up to buy the farm.
He died when his children (my aunts and uncles) were young, but they ran the farm for several decades.
Younger generations were less interested in farming. The family had arguments. One of my aunts remained on the land, which produced less and less until she died.
The developer will clear the forest and pave over the farmland, replacing both with roads, pipes, parking lots, strip malls, and houses. Meanwhile, nearby Erie remains depressed.
This is not news. It’s been happening across The United States for decades.
Owners of small farms that have been in their family for generations sell their land because their revenue can’t offset the taxes they must pay.
They may own a few hundred acres, but maybe only harvest what grows naturally, like timber or ginseng.
So if their timber isn’t due for a few years, or they don’t produce enough cash crops, they don’t have enough revenue from the farm.
Many land owners no longer farm because it’s so difficult and expensive or younger generations left for other types of work.
Often, land-owners have non-farming jobs, but live on the land.
But those jobs often don’t pay enough for them to afford the taxes on the land, so they start selling it in pieces — 10 areas here, 15 acres there.
Eventually, all that’s left is the homestead with large houses surrounding it, which drives ups the value of the land, and therefore, the taxes.
Does it even matter?
The loss of farmland expands the market share of corporate farms growing single crops by shrinking the amount of land used for farming in general.
Housing, business, and infrastructure to support both replaces the farms.
These new exurbs become suburbs that require more and more energy to power the new households and businesses.
But consider this:
When more farms produce one crop and we continue to sprawl, we lose diversity, which in the natural world leads to a loss of resilience.
A forest and farm that produces a diverse range of crops and animals is more resilient.
Without diversity if a pest or disease comes, you lose the whole crop or all the trees for timber.
That’s why large farms are so dependent on pesticides and rely on fertilizers.
But is that good for us? I don’t think so.
Further, they can’t control what happens if a new species or flood or tornado strikes,
If you have multiple crops, one pest can kill one crop, but not all crops.
With less bio-diversity, there are fewer products to make and sell, so the farmer loses.
As the land goes, the culture goes, moving from rural and community based to suburban and home-based.
As rural culture does, we not only lose land and bio-diversity, we lose culture, history and natural beauty — the understanding of how to use the land and the food and natural resources it gives to us.
We are left with housing developments on land other farmers have sold.
For example, when people visit or move to a place expecting natural beauty like Western North Carolina or any Rocky Mountain town, they will soon realize that entire mountain sides have been and are being, developed.
That detracts from the beauty they hoped to find, increases crowds they wanted to escape, and reduces the availability of local foods because they are no longer plentiful.
How harshly should we judge ourselves for wanting to live someplace bigger and newer even if it takes up more land, natural beauty which we love, increases the congestion we hate, and is likely part of what is causing the climate to change?
Cash crops, Agrivoltaics, Solar Utility Vehicles, and Conservation Easements
Students at Warren Wilson College in Western North Carolina are working with small farmers to test ways to reduce the risk farmers face of having to sell their farms.
Rotating, cash crops
One way to diversify revenue-generating crops beyond timber is by growing rotational crops farmers can harvest every five years instead of 10 to 15 years with trees.
For example, farmers can grow cash crops like truffles or shiitake mushrooms or produce walnut syrup. Other examples include growing medicinal plants like ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, golden seal, and Solomon seal.
This can help them keep the farm, but only help them to break even and cover the tax burden with less effort than some other crops.
Agrivoltaics — or using the sun twice
Agrivoltaics integrates solar panels into agricultural systems by placing them high enough and at a density, spacing and orientation so farmers can run tractors and cattle can graze under them.
First, it allows farmers to reduce energy costs because the solar panels can collect power to be used as a source of electricity for the house and vehicles needed on the farm.
Second, this helps farmers save money they can use to pay taxes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using solar power.
It does not involve putting closely-packed, solar panels on 100 acres of land, for example, and putting gravel under them. That is land-replacement.
Solar Utility Vehicles
Warren Wilson students converted the lead-acid batteries in golf carts to lithium iron phosphate batteries, so the vehicles run on the solar power and store it in the batteries.
These carts can be used by farms or municipalities instead of gas-powered vehicles and serve as a source of power for tools and other equipment that maintenance or other personnel might use.
Let’s say a land owner is surrounded by others who have sold part, or all, of their land and developers are building expensive homes on it.
That drives up the value of the land owners’s undeveloped land, increasing the taxes on it.
The owners want their children and grandchildren to be able to keep the land, but are afraid they will not be able pay the estate taxes, which would force them to sell the land.
By donating the land to a conservation easement to a local land trust, the land owner can ensure taxes remain affordable.
Under the terms of the easement, the land will never be subdivided and future building on the property will be limited to, for example, a modest home on a specific part of the property.
The easement binds all future owners to the terms.
The landowner would get an appraisal to show the current market value of the property, but that it would drop significantly with the development restrictions.
Current landowners can also claim a charitable-contribution deduction on their income tax return.
If a landowner with a permanent conservation easement dies, his executor can elect to have a portion of the value of his land excluded from his taxable estate, even though he has already claimed a charitable contribution deduction for the value of the conservation easement.
Innovating our way to a better life requires sacrifice and systemic overhaul
People have always been innovative to survive.
We figured out which plants were edible and eventually to make them available everywhere.
We figured out how to make fire and to use it to make food tender and then to shape tools.
We figured out how to use every natural resource to make our lives more comfortable.
The cost is that we are moving closer and closer to consuming everything in sight.
It’s like someone’s coming to take the land, so we are accelerating our consumption while everything goes to shit.
We have seen forests, fields, and farms turned to suburbs.
Do we need housing developments?
What if we repurpose what we have and integrate current infrastructure with alternative energy sources and carve out green spaces for growing food in urban and suburban areas?
Do we believe that living off of single-crop, corporate farms and more houses — and the accompanying infrastructure and commercial business — is good for society and humankind?
We talk about dismantling oppressive, white-based systems. It seems like we need to dismantle the power and systems that block our own innovative ways of preserving life on the planet.
For more information about his work, and that of his students, at Warren Wilson College, he can be reached at email@example.com.
The material here reflects the perspective of Solutions for the Underaffiliated and not necessarily those of Mr, Ellum.