A speech titled “Energy Efficient Small Family Farms” | 1970s


By Roger Blobaum, Roger Blobaum & Associates West Des Moines, Iowa

Energy Efficient Small Family Farms—Making Farming Profitable on the Urban Fringe” is an intriguing title for a presentation on farmland preservation. There is little in the literature to suggest there is any connection between small farm viability and farmland preservation or that anyone has given it much thought.

My first reaction is that it would be a lot easier to make small family farms energy efficient than to make farming profitable on the urban fringe.  The problems involved in operating a conventional farm in the shadow of a large city, in fact, make it extremely difficult to make it pay for any length of time.

Production of high value crops for local consumption, something small family farmers can do well, is seldom mentioned as a reason for preserving farmland on the urban fringe.  It should be.  I’m convinced there is a strong link between local food production on small farms and farmland preservation on the urban fringe and am pleased to have this opportunity to explore it with you.

It is much easier to see this connection in places like New England, where much of the good farmland has disappeared and nearly all the food is shipped in from elsewhere, or in King County here in Washington where the connection between farmland preservation and local food production has been dramatized through referendum.  But the rationale for encouraging small farm production on the urban fringe, for the most part, is not well developed.

Most of the farmland preservation literature deals with things like cropland classification, land preservation methods, urban fringe tax policy, and a wide range of legal considerations.  Much of it is written from the point of view of the outside expert, often an agricultural economist or a planner, who is interested in managing urban growth.  Little is written from the point of view of the urban consumer who usually ends up paying the land preservation bill.

Approaches developed thus far for preserving farmland, with the exception of the purchase of development rights, are little more than holding actions. Some cost more and some work better than others.  But none have been able to stop the conversion of prime farmland on the urban fringe to non-farm uses. They merely postpone it.

The purchase of development rights, on the other hand, is an extremely costly approach for any local unit of government and is difficult to sell to most city people.  It is difficult to convince them that purchasing rights is a good way to save land for corn or wheat production, or even to maintain a good dairy herd, when they know grain and milk will continue to be produced elsewhere.

Another reason for their skepticism is that few make the connection between preserving close-in farmland and having locally produced fruits and vegetables available at reasonable prices.  Farmland preservation policy is often discussed in ways that suggest it has little to do with either food or the urban people who consume it.

As long as farmland increases in value beyond the point where it pays to farm it, farmers will continue to sell out to developers.  That point is reached fairly soon for grain, livestock, and dairy operations.  It is helped along by the need to travel long distances to buy feed and fertilizer, to compete for help with city jobs nearby, and to deal with non-farm neighbors complaining about noise and odors.

The challenge is to encourage family farm operations that require much less land, utilize intensive production methods, specialize in high value crops, and capitalize on opportunities to market locally.  Farmers with operations of this kind can afford more expensive land and are much less likely to be forced to sell out and move on.

These farms also are more compatible with conditions usually present in the urban fringe.  They have less need to move large machinery over public thorough­fares, avoid the odor problems associated with concentrated livestock or poultry operations, and are less likely to create noise and dust problems.  They fit in better in the urban fringe environment.

I would like to propose that large cities consider developing a metropolitan area food plan in the same way they develop an area wide growth management plan. Regional plans are adopted for public needs like transportation, housing, education, and recreation.  These plans usually include services to people in the urban fringe.  Why not an area wide food production plan as well?

This local plan would take into consideration the quality and availability of close-in farmland, the need to reduce dependence on food shipped from distant points, the need to deal with the lack of permanence and stability in nearby agricultural areas, the advantages of having fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally, the possibilities for expanding greenhouse production, and the potential for recycling urban wastes on agricultural land.

As it is now, the only food plan most metropolitan areas have is the one developed for the region by food wholesalers and retailers.  It does not provide for direct local citizen input, does not take the local farmland base into consideration, and is developed from a market standpoint by Safeway, A&P, and other regional and national food chains.  It provides shipped-in produce on a year-around basis in most areas, for example, whether local people want it that way or not.

Small family farms on the urban fringe don’t have anything to say about this food system and, in most cases, their production is excluded.  Neither do local units of government or other policymaking bodies in a metropolitan area.

Most people in urban areas also take their food supply for granted.  They know their local grocery outlet is dependent on a national food production and distribution system.  They seem content to buy produce that is picked green and shipped long distances.  They do not realize that they are in a position to enhance the quality of their food by having influence on where it is grown.

Adoption of a food plan could focus the attention of urban consumers on urban fringe farmland, make them more aware of how important it is to preserve it, and help them make the connection between their own interest in fresh produce grown locally and small farmers who could provide it.  It also would focus more attention on local efforts to preserve farmland and less on what happens at the state capitol or in Washington.

The elements of such an areawide food plan would make the three-way connection between the economic viability of small farms, the preservation of farmland in the urban fringe, and the food needs of urban consumers.

Production Capability.  We already know a good deal about how important food production is in the urban fringe.  About 24 percent of the land within Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas is cropland.  This land, which is in the path of urban expansion, produces about 21 percent of the value of all agricultural products sold and about one-fifth of the nation’s food.

An initial step in preparing a food plan, then, would be assessing the food production system already in place in the urban fringe area.  Are the farms large or small? Are they conventional grain, livestock, or dairy operations or do they produce vegetables and other labor-intensive crops? Are the oper­ators of average age or do they tend to be older farmers nearing retirement? Do they own the land they farm or is it owned by investors or speculators?

Production capability also is determined by the quality of farmland left in the urban fringe.  It is not enough, however, to protect only land classified as prime by the Soil Conservation Service.  Less productive land this close to markets should also be entitled to a prime classification.  Even poor land that will produce fruit, for example, should be preserved if this food production effort is to respond to the needs of urban consumers.

Food Dependence.  In some areas like New England, more than 90 percent of the food is imported and the supply lines reach to Florida and Texas and beyond. But this level of dependence is not unusual for most fruits and vegetables, even during the summer months, for many cities.  The technology of transpor­tation, including refrigerated trucks using the interstate highway system has been the most significant factor in removing the need for farmer proximity to consumers.

However rapidly-rising energy costs, and the possibilities of diesel fuel shortages, are certain to force changes in the way this important sector of the food industry operates and to reduce its reliability.  Local production in many areas already has an economic edge during the regular season and the time is near when winter-time production in greenhouses will be both reliable and economically competitive for tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other high-value crops.  The challenge for metropolitan area food planners, then, is to keep open the option for future production of fresh produce by farmers in the urban fringe.

Agricultural Instability.  Farmers in the urban fringe often succumb to what is called the “impermanence syndrome,” which is a decreasing concern for the best production and conservation methods as the inevitable sale and conversion of the land approaches.  This is accelerated when leapfrogging development surrounds individual farmers or farm neighborhoods and large amounts of farm­land are acquired by investors.

A Connecticut study found, for example, that about half the dairy operations in the state were operating on rented land available on a year-to-year basis. The dairymen involved had no incentive to take care of the land or to spend money modernizing their operations.

Only when farmers are secure for a long period of time are they free to make long-term investments.  These include barns, fences, and other improvements; soil-saving structures like terraces, and long-term investments like vineyards, orchards, and greenhouses.  Young people often hesitate to start farming in these areas because they anticipate rising taxes, increased regulation, and other pressures associated with urbanization and assume they will eventu­ally be forced to sell out.

Lack of permanence also threatens the viability of agriculture as an economic venture.  A minimum amount of productive land is needed to provide the economic base for cooperatives, implement dealers, feed and fertilizer suppliers, and other small businesses that serve farmers.  A study prepared for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture found that the minimum needed to support dairying was at least 90,000 acres of cropland and pasture and 26,000 cows within a radius of 30 to 50 miles.  These requirements ranged down to 10,000 acres in a 10-mile radius for vegetable and potato operations, which would appear to make them much more appropriate to urban fringe areas.

The permanence problem would have to be addressed in any metropolitan food plan that called for local production by small family farmers.  Solving the problem would be essential to maintaining their economic viability.

Expanded Greenhouse Production.  One of the areas of greatest potential for improving the economic viability of farmers in the urban fringe is expansion of greenhouse production.  Although this system requires a lot of labor and is capital-intensive, it will produce 15 to 20 times as much per acre as can be grown under field conditions.

Before the interstate highway system was built, most of the tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers sold during the winter months in northern cities came from greenhouses.  The industry has made considerable progress in fuel conservation and in many areas greenhouse production is becoming competitive with shipped-in produce.

Locating greenhouses adjacent to industries that produce waste heat can help overcome this energy-related problem.  It is estimated that sufficient industrial waste heat is available to warm enough greenhouse space to produce winter vegetables for the entire country.

A food plan prepared for a metropolitan area could include a farmer-operated greenhouse component that would meet the need for much of the fresh produce sold during the winter months.  It would be a major step in decreasing dependence on distant suppliers.  Helping farmers produce year-around would go far in making them economically viable and in stabilizing the food production system in the urban fringe.

Local Production Potential.  In places like the Northeast, where most of the food is imported, consumers have to pay about 15 percent more for it than the national average.  Even though they have a price advantage, local farmers often have trouble finding a market for all they produce.  That helps account for the “buy local” campaigns that have been launched in states like Vermont and Massachusetts.  They use bumper stickers that urge urban consumers to “support your local farmer.”

An innovative approach started four years ago in Nashville now provides fresh-picked produce during the growing season to city consumer in six Southern states.  Small farmers on the urban fringe have organized into producer cooperatives and are linked to urban buyers through regularly-scheduled “food fairs” conducted on church parking lots.  Elimination of middlemen keeps prices of vegetables and fruits well under supermarket levels.

Another way close-in producers can cut costs is to let urban consumers pick their own.  These pick-your-own operations, which provide significant savings in labor costs, work well for crops like strawberries.  This approach also is used in some areas for apples and other fruit.  In some cases members of food cooperatives pick produce as part of their monthly service.

It is not surprising that lower prices result.  The Department of Agriculture reports that farmers received only 25 percent of each dollar consumers spent on fruit and vegetables last year.  Nearly 30 percent of the cost of fruits and vegetables went for packaging, rail and truck transportation, and adver­tising.

In Massachusetts an attempt has been made to provide institutional markets for local farmers.  This was done after it was noted that universities, hospitals, government cafeterias, correction facilities, and schools account for 10 percent of the $3 billion spent in the state for food.  A related approach is to have school districts contract with local farmers for fresh vegetables and fruit for school lunch programs.  Some states use public funds to help bring local farmers and urban consumers together in farmers markets.

There obviously are many things that urban consumers can do to help make small farming profitable on the urban fringe.  An areawide food plan could identify them and suggest how they can be implemented.

Waste Recycling.  Preserving sufficient close-in farmland to provide an option for urban waste recycling also is an important consideration for a city and the •farmers in the urban fringe.

An assessment of the potential for applying urban wastes to agricultural land in a 3-county Midwest region showed that nearly all the fertilizer needed on more than 80,000 acres of cropland could be provided by the year 2000 by applying all the sludge, paunch manure, and livestock manure available from urban sources in the region.  This study, carried out in the Omaha-Council Bluffs SMSA, treated the entire region as a waste recycling system that included close-in privately-owned land as an essential component.

It was futuristic in the sense that it attempted to show what would happen between now and the year 2000 if all suitable urban wastes in a region were applied at agronomic levels to close-in agricultural land.  Instead of asking” how many acres would be required for disposal of organic urban wastes, it asked how many acres could be supplied with these wastes to help meet the fertilizer requirements of commonly-grown crops.

When urban wastes were composted and applied at the rate of 12 dry tons per acre, for example, they provided all the nutrients needed in five of every six years under a six-year rotation of corn, oats, alfalfa, alfalfa, corn, and soybeans.  Some nitrogen fertilizer would be required for the second planting of corn in the fifth year.  By the year 2000, with increasing waste volumes and rising fertilizer prices, benefits to the region’s farmers in terms of supplying nutrients for crop production could exceed $1 million annually.

Although the heavy metals content of sludge was not a problem in the Omaha-Council Bluffs region, it does limit land application in many areas.  Farmers producing vegetables would have to be particularly careful in using sludge. What is needed, of course, is a prohibition against certain manufacturing and fabrication operations and pre-treatment at the source of wastes released into municipal sewers.

Integration of an area wide land application system into a regional food plan would seem appropriate, both to make these organic wastes available to farmers in the urban fringe area and to make recycling possible.  Preserving farmland on the urban fringe is one way to keep this option open.

Probably the most important point I want to make is that preserving farmers in the urban fringe, and making them economically viable, is just as important as saving farmland.  Indeed it is part of the farmland preservation effort.

There is a tendency for the experts to focus attention on techniques for preserving farmland and for policymakers to commit public funds that support that approach.  The influence of urban interests, unfortunately, is largely represented by developers, builders, and financial institutions.

The time has come to challenge urban consumers to begin participating more fully and directly in the effort to preserve farmland and to develop rationale for doing this.  It is fully consistent with the growing interest in regional self-sufficiency.

Preserving open space and the rural character of close-in land is not enough by itself to attract public support needed to commit large amounts of public funding.  The connection must be made between urban consumers, the economic viability of small farmers on the urban fringe, and farmland preservation.

I have suggested the development and implementation of metropolitan area food plans as one way to approach this problem.  Undoubtedly there are others. The time has come to add this extra dimension to the nationwide farmlands preservation effort.


Blobaum, Roger. “The Loss of Agricultural Land.” A study report to the Citi­zens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality.  Washingotn, D.C.  1974.

Blobaum, Roger, and S. Fast, L. Holcomb, and L. Swanson.  “An Assessment of the Potential for Applying Urban Wastes to Agricultural Lands.” A report prepared for the National Science Foundation.  Roger Blobaum & Associates. West Des Moines, Iowa.  1979.

Conklin, Howard, and Richard Dymaza.  “Maintaining Viable Agriculture in Areas of Urban Expansion.” New York State Office of Planning Services.  Albany. 1976.

“Farming in the City’s Shadow.” U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Agricultural Economics Report No. 250.  February, 1974.

“Issues in Agricultural Land Use Management in New Jersey.” Special Report No. 17.  Rutgers University.  February, 1973.

Josephy, Robert.  “Farming in the Urban Northeast.” Address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” Boston.  1976.

“1978 Handbook of Agricultural Charts.”  U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Handbook No. 551.  November, 1978.

Webb, Lee. “Supporting the Family Farm/Protecting Farmland: New Directions for State and Local Governments.” Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies.  Washington, D.C.  Undated.



R. Blobaum, MAKING FARMING PROFITABLE ON THE URBAN FRINGE. Date unknown, sometime in the 1970s. Summary: A presentation on the strong link between local food production on small farms and farmland preservation on the urban fringe.