The Value of Farmland: Rural Gentrification and the Movement to Stop Sprawl

This post by Angela Shope Stiefbold is our second entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We invited graduate students to submit essays on theme of “Striking Gold,” whether lucre or archival treasures. Stiefbold’s essay hews towards the former interpretation, examining how rapidly rising metropolitan land value can mean “Striking Gold” for some land owners while threatening the livelihood of others.

Rents are rapidly rising. Property values are skyrocketing. Real estate taxes are ever-increasing. Long-time owners are selling out and moving away. Newcomers express values and politics at odds with older residents. This sounds like a gentrifying urban neighborhood—but it was the situation in not-long-to-be-rural, mid-twentieth century Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

J. Warren Shelly, whose family began farming in Bucks County in the 1700s, worried that he would have to sell the 65-acre farm where he was born, because its real estate tax assessment was increased 900 percent in 1972. Yet, as he noted, “The land isn’t for sale, so the market value doesn’t mean anything to us.” He went on to observe “It’s a funny thing…A lot of people came here originally because they like the way it is out here, with the open spaces and green fields. Those are the same people who are taxing us out of existence.”[1]

geographic Position 1954 plan
“The Geographic Position of Buck’s County.” Source: “General Background, Buck’s County Regional Plan, Part 1” (Doylestown, PA: Buck’s County Planning Commission, 1954), follows p. 1.

Shelly was one of many Bucks County farmers who found their lives upended as the demand for exurban estates and suburban tract homes transformed their rural townships and caused land prices to sharply appreciate. Some farmers happily sold their land and pocketed the windfall, which allowed them to comfortably retire from the hard work and financial uncertainty of farming. But other farmers found increased property values and the higher real estate taxes they produced problematic if they wanted to continue to farm or to live out their retirement years on land that had been in their family for generations.

While many of the new arrivals were sympathetic to the plight of neighboring farmers, the novelty of the problem and the glacial rate of change in state and local government policy resulted in many long-time residents being uprooted from their land. When programs were finally enacted to preserve prime farmland and agriculture, the new policies were implemented largely because farmers found allies in their exurban neighbors who valued the amenity that a farm landscape provided.

The history of suburbanization has largely been written in order to understand the experience and motivations of the people who moved from city to suburb.[2] I am interested in the perspective of the farmers who were living in the rural areas to which suburbanization came. The legacies of conflicts over land, how it is regulated and taxed, and who can afford to live on it, continue to reverberate not just in cities, but at the rural-urban fringe.

UFPA Newsletter 1933
Newsletter of UFPA. Source: Agrarian Periodicals in the United States, 1920-1960 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), microfilm.

For generations, Bucks County residents sustained their households by both consuming and selling to urban markets the products of their land.[3] Family farms, along with a few large commercial farming enterprises established in the 1920s, shipped tons of produce to Philadelphia, New York, and other nearby cities. According to the 1940 U.S. Agricultural Census, Bucks County farmers produced thirty percent of the state’s total sale value of vegetables, harvesting more broccoli, parsnips, spinach, rhubarb, turnips, carrots, and green beans than the rest of Pennsylvania combined.[4]

Yet even with such productivity, many of the county’s farmers struggled during the Great Depression. Crop prices dropped after WWI and were slow to recover. Additionally, the agricultural industry was changing, and many family farms could not compete with larger, more efficient, better capitalized and better-connected commercial operations. Bucks County farmers lobbied for tax relief and policies that would help the small operator, both through the Grange, the largest farm organization in the county, as well as a more radical local group, the United Farmers Protective Association (UFPA). The UFPA went so far as to disrupt sheriff’s sales and threaten to block milk deliveries in the early 1930s. Ultimately the county’s “dirt farmers” got little relief and many gave up and sold their farms—often to a new type of Bucks County landowner.

Starkey Bean Field 1941 LOC
Marion Post Wolcott, Portable irrigation unit in bean field. Starkey Farms, Morrisville Pennsylvania, May 1941, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017806944/.

Howard Paxson, lifelong Solebury Township resident and farmer, commented in 1942 that “there had been great changes in his community since he started farming. Few farms were today in the same hands…only one farm was being farmed by the third generation.”[5] The county’s countryside attracted wealthy summer visitors from Philadelphia and New York City, and in the 1930s they purchased Bucks County land in growing numbers. Some new owners tried their own hand at agriculture, but more often they converted the farms to manicured estates, rented the bulk of the fields to a neighboring farmer, or hired managers to run the farm, sometimes consolidating and converting several diversified, general farms into cattle or horse breeding operations. One thing that held true for almost all of these estate-farm owners was that they did not need to be profitable farmers—for them agriculture was a hobby.

Long-time local farmers, like Benjamin Kirson, complained that “wealthy men who have bought farms in this vicinity [a]ffect other farmers. They have raised inspection standards too high and the high wages they pay and superior living conditions they provide make it hard for th[e] average farmer to keep help satisfied.”[6] Of other exurban estate owners, William Greenawalt, agricultural extension agent, said “…I met many who had no idea of what to do with the farm after they had it. Apparently they had put most of their cash into the purchase and for repairs to buildings and then didn’t have the capital for equipment or stocking. They had no particular interest in the land other than as a home in the country.”[7]

Farm 1939 LOC
Marion Post Wolcott, Farm. Bucks County, Pennsylvania. June 1939, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017801231/

After WWII, Bucks County’s farmland faced what Dr. Gerald Brees, director of the Bureau of Urban Research at Princeton University, described as “the path of two giant steamrollers, one from New York City and the other from Philadelphia.”[8] Real estate promoters had long encouraged industrial growth in the lower end of the county, the location of highways and railroads connecting Philadelphia and New York. In the 1950s that growth finally took off, with large industrial and residential development projects making significant changes in the landscape. They included U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works, which employed over 7,000 on a 3,800-acre site and Levitt and Sons’ second Levittown development of over 17,000 houses across eight square miles.

Aerial-View-of-Levittown
“Levittown dwarfs a neighboring farmstead,” http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/levittowns

This wave of development displaced thousands of county farmers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there were 4,299 Bucks County farms in 1940, but only 1,159 in 1969.[9] Herman L. Margerum, Jr., president of the Morrisville Bank, commented in 1953 that due to the new suburban growth “many old-timers have moved after selling out at good prices. Some purchased rich farmland up-county, others bought farms in Delaware and a few retired to Florida.”[10] By 1960, farmer Harry Atkinson, Jr. complained that “There has been no land sold south of Doylestown in the last 10 years that a farmer could afford to buy and farm.”[11]

If a farmer wanted to stay put, forgo the windfall of increased property value, and tolerate the change in the community, property taxes posed a final obstacle. Suburban development required substantial local investment in new public facilities, primarily funded by real estate taxes. When the Bucks County Board of Assessment released the results of a county-wide reassessment in 1972, farmers saw their property valued at levels two to ten times higher. Operating on the slimmest margins of profitability, they lobbied for relief. Otto Fink, a poultry farmer in Milford Township, said in reaction to his new assessment, “Either the new assessment on my farm is lowered for 1973 or I’m out of business. It’s as simple as that.”[12] The prospect of many farmers doing the same was expressed by Walter Wurster, representative of the Bucks County Farmers’ Association, who reported “it’s not an assessment notice, it’s an eviction notice.”[13]

Given the declining importance of agriculture in Bucks County, one would imagine that farmers faced an uphill battle to convince local authorities to help their situation.[14] In 1970 farm operators made up less than half of one percent of the county’s total population (415,056).[15] In 1974, the value of the county’s agricultural production was $22 million, a small fraction of the $2.7 billion in revenue produced by the county’s manufacturing firms.[16] Only one third of the county’s land area remained agricultural use.[17]

However, the county’s farmers found strong allies among non-farm residents, many of whom moved to Bucks because they wanted to live in a farming landscape. Additionally, there was a growing movement for environmental protection, including preserving prime agricultural soils for local food production. James Iden Smith, the ninth generation of his family to own his farm and a Quaker involved in the UFPA in the 1930s and soil conservation efforts throughout his life, found himself serving as a spokesperson for farmland preservation in the 1970s. He observed that “Land produces everything we need for clean, healthful living. If we use that up eventually the country is going to suffer for it.”[18]

The first protectors of the rural countryside, beginning in the late 1930s, tried to restrict growth using township zoning ordinances that required large lot sizes and prohibited multi-family housing. By the early 1970s, a more ecological approach to guiding growth was promoted by the Bucks County Planning Commission. It urged limiting development of areas with environmental constraints or significant natural resources. They recommended agricultural soils with prime productivity remain 95 percent undeveloped.

NR Protection Map 1977 Comp Plan.JPG
Blue Areas are designated Prime Agricultural District. “Comprehensive Plan: Bucks County, Pennsylvania” (Bucks County Planning Commission: Doylestown, PA, June 1977).

The first protectors of the rural countryside, beginning in the late 1930s, tried to restrict growth using township zoning ordinances that required large lot sizes and prohibited multi-family housing. By the early 1970s, a more ecological approach to guiding growth was promoted by the Bucks County Planning Commission. It urged limiting development of areas with environmental constraints or significant natural resources. They recommended agricultural soils with prime productivity remain 95 percent undeveloped.

Many farmers opposed these approaches to preserving the agricultural landscape because they reduced the wealth embodied in their land—their retirement nest-egg. If fewer homes could be built on their farm, developers would pay less for it. Objecting to zoning proposed in Buckingham Township, farmer Edwin Daniels testified that because the future profitability of agriculture was questionable and it was unlikely farmers’ children would continue farming, it was important “for us to hang onto the value of our farms for them.”[19] In the early 1970s housing developers and landowners brought successful court challenges against restrictive zoning in several Bucks County townships.

Following this setback, the county planning commission, proponents of open space preservation, environmentalists, and anti-growth activists began collaborating with farmers. They embraced programs designed to protect farmland not by prohibiting non-farm uses, but by encouraging the success of farming operations. As the Bucks County Planning Commission’s director of community planning James C. Lodge noted, “using agriculture as an activity and preserving agriculture itself is going to be one of the mechanisms to preserve land.”[20]

Ag Loss Diagram 1979 Report.png
Graphic used by Bucks County Planning Commission to describe factors contributing to farmland loss. “Agricultural Preservation in Bucks County” (Bucks County Planning Commission: Doylestown, PA, July 1979)

Bucks County civic leaders helped propel bills through the state legislature that provided real estate tax relief to landowners who promised not to develop farmland. County and township officials implemented a purchase of development rights program, funded through state, county, and local bond initiatives (overwhelmingly approved by voters), which paid farmers the difference between the market value of land and its farm-use value, in return for an easement on the land forever prohibiting its development. Between 1989 and 2016 over $151 million was spent through the county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program to preserve more than 15,000 acres of farmland.[21] This subsidy provided farmers access to the development value of their land without destroying the productive value of its soils or the amenity of its pastoral landscape, appreciated by farmers and non-farmers alike. Yet this solution came much too late for most of Bucks County’s farmers. In 2012 only 17 percent of the county remained in farmland, down from 67 percent in 1930 and the number of farms had fallen from 4,360 to 827.[22]

Concurrently, individual farmers made changes in their operations in order to prosper in a suburban market, with the advice and assistance of county agencies, farm organizations, and the Penn State Extension Service. They increasingly sold plants, fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products directly to local consumers, shifted to organic production or specialty crops, and incorporated farm-based-entertainment into their operations. These farmers practiced a form of agriculture very different from that of the “dirt farmers” of the 1930s, who were unsuccessful at rallying local support for the distressed family farmer. Instead, they survived because they provided a service and amenity valued by their non-farm neighbors. One can see similarities with the experience in gentrifying city neighborhoods, where the influx of new, affluent residents redefines what is considered appropriately authentic urbanism.

1977 video with James Iden Smith talking about farming and preserving farmland from 31:00 to 33:40

In my forthcoming dissertation, I further investigate the diverse and complex motivations for and opposition to farmland preservation. In presenting this summary, I have simplified a great deal of the contentious public debate over the fate of Bucks County’s farmland and farmers. Residents and local officials debated: the rights of land owners; the fairness of using real estate taxes to fund public services; the viability of small-scale agriculture; and the responsibility of government to represent and protect the interests of its citizens, both current and future. Rarely admitted publicly, but likely motivation for some anti-sprawl, pro-farm activists included keeping low-income and minority residents at a distance. Homebuilder and Bucks County Planning Commission member Ralph Pisani said of the fight over development, “…it’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad [g]uys…farmers, land owners, legitimate environmentalists, bigots (disguised as environmentalists), professional planners, municipal officials and land developers comprise the list of combatants…the battlefields are the farms…the weapons are the federal and state constitutions.”[23] Protecting farmland was a way to slow suburban sprawl while supporting the indisputably worthwhile causes of protecting the environment, the food supply, the American farmer, and the rural landscape.

Stiefbold PhotoAngela Shope Stiefbold is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati, where she studies urban history, planning history, and public history, and has become increasingly interested in their intersection with agricultural and rural history. She earned a Master of City and Regional Planning from UNC-Chapel Hill, and her career in city planning included working as a Senior Planner for the Bucks County Planning Commission. She has also served on her local historic preservation, economic development, and planning commissions.

[1] Clark DeLeon, “Farmers’ Choice: Raise Crops…Or Tax Money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 1972, Newspapers.com.

[2] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987); Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth (New York: Pantheon, 2003). One of the few works to discuss the agency of the rural landowner in the history of suburbanization is: Mark Linder and Lawrence S. Zacharias, Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999).

[3] For a comprehensive history of Pennsylvania agriculture, see Sally McMurry, Pennsylvania Farming: A History in Landscapes (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017).

[4] “County Farm Situation Is Undergoing Changes,” Daily Intelligencer Clippings Files, “Bucks Co Agriculture, 1915-1945,” Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1940, Volume 1 First and Second Series, State Repots, Statistics for Counties,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[5] Minutes, March 4, 1942, Minute Book, Box 2, Folder 7, Pomona Grange #22 Collection, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.

[6] Minutes, September 6, 1944, Minute Book, Box 3, Folder 1, Pomona Grange #22 Collection, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.

[7] William F. Greenawalt, “Annual Report: December 1, 1949-November 30, 1950” (Agricultural Extension Association of Bucks County: Doylestown, PA),” n.d., 1.

[8] “Claims Present Bucks Situation Was Inevitable,” Bristol (PA) Courier, March 3, 1952, Newspapers.com.

[9] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1940, Volume 1 First and Second Series, State Repots, Statistics for Counties,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1969, Volume 1 Area Reports, Part 9 Pennsylvania, Section 1. Summary Data,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[10] William G. Weart, “Bucks County Boom Beset by Problems,” New York Times, December 26, 1953, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

[11] Minutes, March 2, 1960, Minute Book, Box 2, Folder 7, Pomona Grange #22 Collection, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.

[12] Sonya Sharp, “Farmers Feel New Assessments Will Put Them Out of Business,” Morning Call (Allentown, PA), August 2, 1972, Newspapers.com.

[13] Clark DeLeon, “Farmers’ Choice: Raise Crops…Or Tax Money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 1972, Newspapers.com.

[14] For a history of federal efforts to preserve farmland, see Tim Lehman, Public Values, Private Lands: Farmland Preservation Policy, 1933-1985 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[15] Richard L. Forstall, “PENNSYLVANIA: Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990,” U.S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/population/cencounts/pa190090.txt.

[16] Bucks County Planning Commission, “Comprehensive Plan, Bucks County Pennsylvania,” (Doylestown, PA: June 1977), 22.

[17] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1974, Volume, Part 38, Pennsylvania State and County Data,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977), http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[18] Michael B. Smith, “Bucolic Buckingham Township Resists the Developers’ ‘Cure’,” Philadelphia Inquirer May 26, 1974, Newspapers.com.

[19] Lawrence C. Hall, “Officials Reveal New Zone Plan,” Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA), July 27, 1973, Newspapers.com.

[20] Meeting Minutes, March 14, 1979, Minute Book 4, (Bucks County Planning Commission: Doylestown, PA), 87.

[21] “Annual Report, 2016” (Bucks County Agricultural Land Preservation Program: Doylestown, PA, August 2016), 9-10. Privately-funded nonprofit organizations also pursued development rights purchase programs in the county.

[22] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 2012,” https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_County_Level. U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Census of Agriculture, 1930,” http://agcensus.mannlib.cornell.edu/AgCensus.

[23] Ralph Pisani, “In Development War, There Are Only Victims,” Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA) December 15, 1977, Newspapers.com.

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