Last week at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, Commissioner Tim Norton spoke in favor of the need for comprehensive government planning. In support, he cited the commonly-held belief that humans — especially with their desire for large suburban home lots — are depleting the stock of farmland to the point of being detrimental to agribusiness.
Here’s part of what Norton said (video below):
Now I know people don’t like the idea of sprawl and growth rings and all that, but the truth is there is a balance between where people live and preserving our good agricultural lands and how do you make that work. And that’s being able to sustain part of our economy. Agribusiness is the third largest economic driver in our community, in our region, and to say that we’re okay with every five acre tract being taken up by somebody’s rural residence sounds really good if you’re talking only property rights. But if you’re talking about preserving and sustaining agribusiness you gotta have the land and it’s got to be set aside for that enterprise.
Farms and ranches being driven out of existence by homeowners — that sounds like a problem that might threaten our food supply. But what are the facts?
First, there is an overabundance of farmland in America. There is so much farmland that we pay farmers billions each year to refrain from planting crops. We pay corn farmers billions in subsidies each year and then use their crops for motor fuel, instead of for making fine Kentucky bourbon and taco shells, as God intended.
Considering Sedgwick County, as that is what Norton represents: Despite being the second-most populous county in Kansas and home to its largest city and surrounding suburban communities, Sedgwick County ranks fourth among Kansas counties in the number of farms, thirty-fourth in farmland acres, seventh in total harvested cropland acres, thirty-third in market value of harvested crops, sixty-sixth in market value of livestock, and eighty-seventh in pasture acres. (Data from Kansas Farm Facts 2011, reporting on 2007 farm statistics.)
There’s something else that might ease Commissioner Norton’s concern, if he would only believe in the power of markets over government: That is the price system. If we were truly running short of farmland, crop prices would rise and farmland would become more valuable. Fewer people would be willing to pay the price necessary to have a five-acre home lot.
In fact, if crop prices were high enough, farmers would be buying back the five-acre lots, or perhaps paying homeowners to rent their yards for planting crops or grazing livestock.
In either case, markets — through the price system — provide a solution that doesn’t require politicians and bureaucrats. There are many other areas in which this is true, but government nonetheless insists on regulation and control.
The power of prices, as told by Thomas Sowell: “The last premiere of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is said to have asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: How do you see to it that people get food? The answer was that she didn’t. Prices did that. And the British people were better fed than those in the Soviet Union, even though the British have never grown enough food to feed themselves in more than a century. Prices bring them food from other countries.”