My traveling companions are my sleepy 9-year-old son and fellow sustainable growth activist Cat Griffith-Benson, a 34-year-old viticulture farmer in Blount County who is at least a fifth-generation farmer but whose ancestors settled here seven generations back. Her grandfather’s 300-plus-acre farm in Friendsville was once a thriving cattle and row crop operation and is now the site of an empty Amazon warehouse. Along with Blue Goose Winery on the west end of Maryville that she helps her family run and which she and her brother will become heir to, she has already inherited her family’s struggle with the aggressive pro-development forces.
I have seen the heat maps from American Farmland Trust projecting what will happen under “Business As Usual” growth and “Runaway Sprawl” scenarios, with splotches of red spreading further and further into the green areas of our county like a wildfire. But anyone can drive around and see that the quiet, rural way of life is giving way to more cluster developments, traffic, noise and pollution.
Protecting rural character and fertile soil
The movement to protect the rural character here seems to be gaining momentum. People are pushing back on the notion that sprawl — defined as the loss of agricultural land to poorly planned real estate development — is the only path forward. They say it doesn’t make economic sense either, given the cost of community services like roads, sewer connections, and the loss of agricultural productivity as a local resource. Some citizens here face enormously high stakes, such as the loss of their century farms from eminent domain. Others are concerned about long-term effects of overdevelopment for future generations, including excess runoff flowing into waterways, withering of the rural economy and loss of local food resilience.
Since Griffith-Benson and I first crossed paths at a public meeting organized by the Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension (CAPPE) that have for two decades opposed TDOT’s plans for a stretch of highway through more of Blount County’s farms, we’ve become regulars at Blount County Commission meetings. (Full disclosure, this writer is also a board member of CAPPE.)
In 2022, Griffith-Benson launched Citizens for Sustainable Growth, which helped challenge two proposed cluster developments. One was adjoining her family’s farm that would have had 190 residential lots, and another nearby would have had 240 residential lots. Both were defeated, at least temporarily.
One Million Acres for the Future
Last year, after learning about farmer-led policy initiatives in other states, Griffith-Benson and I reached out to the only chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition in the state and learned that a national effort was already underway. The One Million Acres for the Future campaign seeks a historic investment in the 2023 Farm Bill to transition land to the next generation of farmers to address their number one challenge: access to quality and affordable farmland. So, together with a handful of farmers from the region, Griffith-Benson and I were eager to join the cause and speak to state legislators about land access policy.
“I view land access as a way to combat farmland disappearing and a way to address environmental concerns with development,” she said. “Land access is a way to keep farmland as farmland and make sure the next generation has a way to access land that is out of reach economically.”
Ag Day on the Hill
At the Capitol, you can’t avoid the state seal with the motto “Agriculture and Commerce” emblazoned upon it. Ag Day on the Hill activities included an address to the crowd from Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Hatcher uplifting the value of farming in the state before a corn shelling contest in the plaza below the Capitol steps. Despite the fanfare, Tennessee has the third highest rate of farmland loss to urban sprawl in the nation, with 1,014,600 acres projected to be lost from 2016-2040, given current trends.
Part of the problem is the misconception that young people don’t want to enter farming. Year after year, retiring farmers across the country are faced with tough decisions, especially when their children or grandchildren don’t wish to continue the family tradition. They deserve to retire with dignity, selling their land to those who will continue to steward it, but often this is not possible, and developers bring a good return.
Many young people want to begin farming
Young farmers, many of them first generation farmers, can’t afford to pay the high rate that developers can for farmland. Plenty of young people want to begin farming, but the barrier to entry is too high, and this mismatch leads to lost opportunities and lost land.
Jess Wilson, president of Tennessee’s chapter of Young Farmers says it doesn’t have to be this way. “Our lawmakers tend to show genuine concern about land access issues, but then throw their hands up and say that nothing can be done,” she said. “The reasons they often cite are that it can’t cost money, it can’t be a government solution, it can’t infringe on property rights, etc. But if we want to move bills that will pass in our state, we can’t just give up. We all want thriving rural communities in which young farmers are able to make a living and feed their local communities.”
Existing Tennessee programs can be strengthened
Of course, Tennessee is not unique in the predicament, but with no state income tax, the problem is harder to solve than in states like Pennsylvania, which have tax incentives that support farmer-to-farmer land transaction. Wilson adds that Tennessee does have programs and incentives that benefit farmers such as greenbelts, which cut property taxes on agricultural, forested or open space land. Tennessee also has a farm link program that could be made more effective. Additionally, conservation easements, as well as newer arrangements used by Agrarian Trust, are already working in Tennessee.
“There is no reason that Tennessee can’t build on existing structures to come up with its own unique way to solve this problem,” she said.
Wilson added that often lawmakers are landowners themselves and have owned land for decades but are quite removed from the reality of what it is like to try to access land today, especially as a first-generation farmer.
The 2023 Farm Bill: Time to act is now
Emma Chapman Busby, project manager of Tennessee’s chapter of Young Farmers, says that with this being a Farm Bill year, the time to act is now. She says that there is a strong chance that the 2023 Farm Bill, which will set the agricultural policy landscape for the next five years, will include funding for land access and farmland protection efforts.
“If that priority is codified, federal funding will flow down to the states, earmarked for addressing land access issues,” she said. “With some preemptive policy planning, Tennessee could be well-positioned to capitalize on these funds and make a substantial difference for young farmers trying to get plugged into the state’s agricultural economy.”
Busby has also been searching on and off for land to start a small market garden over the last year and says that searching for farms on TNFarmLink can only get one so far.
“There need to be robust systems that foster genuine connections between aging land owners and young farmers,” she said. “And we also need support for land purchases or lease-to-own arrangements.”
Enabling farms and communities to thrive together
The reasons to support land access run deep. Even if a farmer has the funding to purchase land, often that land changes hands without ever coming on the real estate market. Additionally, land access addresses equity for marginalized people who have historically had land unjustly stripped from their families and communities. And there are climate benefits too. A survey by Young Farmers found that out of 10,000 respondents, 83 percent said that one of their primary purposes for farming is to engage in regeneration and conservation.
Ag Day on the Hill was about celebrating agriculture in the state, with young 4-H participants posing on the steps with the politicians, impressive tractors parked on the street and people in suits petting adorable baby farm animals hauled in for the morning. However, ensuring that the next generation of farmers has access to affordable and arable land and preventing the continued loss of valuable farmland to unchecked development will require more than uplifting words and photo ops. Land access goes well beyond preserving the million-dollar views bringing more development to places like Blount County. At heart, land access is about creating communities where we all can thrive.