Land Grant Student Makes Key Discoveries in Exu...

Land Grant Student Makes Key Discoveries in Exurban Farming

Land Grant Student Makes Key Discoveries in Exurban Farming

Defying conventional wisdom, researchers have discovered that the majority of our nation’s crop sales come not from America’s storied "fruited plains," but from smaller farms tucked between developments just beyond our cities’ limits. Seventy nine percent of the nation’s fruit crop sales and 68 percent of vegetable crop sales come from what policymakers are calling the Rural-Urban Interface (RUI), or exurbia.

This emerging, economically important demographic was the focus of Ohio State graduate student Shoshanah Inwood’s research. Most RUI research has focused on land use policies’ effect on RUI farms’ viability. But Inwood used a SARE Graduate Student Grant to look further, at how social pressures such as health care costs, ability to afford retirement, and succession—the ability of one generation to pass down the farm to the next—influence an RUI farm’s ability to survive. What she and fellow Ohio State researchers found has profound implications for government farm policy.

Inwood interviewed RUI farm families outside of Columbus, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Mich. Across kitchen tables she heard their stories: Health care is one of the top threats to the farm, learned Inwood, forcing many farmers to work at other jobs. Many farmers cannot afford retirement. But one of the biggest factors influencing an RUI farm’s long-term survival was whether or not a farm had an heir to whom the farm would transfer.

Succession, discovered Inwood, plays a key role in determining if a farm is going to be a dynamic, entrepreneurial operation or a sell-off to land developers. Farms without an apparent heir are more likely to be in decline and more likely to be transferred to non-farm development. Those with an heir usually are in a stage of growth, not always by buying more land—often expensive at the RUI—but more likely by “stacking” enterprises, such as direct marketing and value-added products. Stacking allows additional family members to earn a living from the same land base.

Counties, states and the federal government would be well advised, says Inwood, to develop a host of social policies, including those that account for the succession process, farm-transfer support for heirless farmers, business planning programs, lower-cost health care and other policies that address additional pressures at the RUI. Inwood cites USDA’s new program Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food— which encourages local and regional food systems—as one federal program poised to address RUI farmers’ special needs.

“There is the generalization that agriculture will decline in the face of development pressure,” says Inwood. “But with the right policies that encourage the creativity and entrepreneurship that these families are exhibiting, these families can restructure to survive the pressures of farming at the RUI.”

Inwood’s SARE-funded research has had implications for her own career as well as government policy: She was able to use her work as a stepping stone to a post-doctoral position at Ohio State’s Social Responsibility Initiative, where she’ll continue to examine and promote the important agriculture just beyond our city limits.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) GNC06-070, Sustaining the Family Farm at the Rural Urban Interface: Farm Succession Processes of Alternative Food and Agricultural Enterprises and Traditional Commodity Farmers .

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