Who will be the last person to operate a family farm in Douglas County? Will it be a Wulfkuhle, Flory, Leary, Ross, Pine or Pendleton? Will it simply be a case of the last man left standing, or will it be based on factors such as historical significance or quality of the land? Will it happen in your lifetime or in your children's lifetime?
To ask such questions a generation ago would have been unthinkable, but in our inexorable march to replace lands never before built upon with taupe-colored suburban housing, these questions begin to creep into possibility. The alternative to asking is to march blindly on.
My own childhood was spent in an early 1950s ranch home development in neighboring Johnson County, two generations removed from the family farm. One grandparent did well operating a feed mill. The other was in the hatchery business and barely got by. The playgrounds of my youth were after-hours construction sites and the disappearing agricultural landscape.
For years I rode my bike without realization past the two farmhouses whose owners sold the land upon which my family and others came to live. The creek where I caught crawdads and box turtles is now gone, the hedgerows gone, the tree houses gone; the abandoned pear orchard where I caught a vicious case of poison ivy a week before class pictures is gone. The Schwegler family farm on the northwest corner of 87th Street and Pflumm Road was the site of spring picnics at my grade school. The Schwegler farm is now gone and my grade school torn down. You'd be hard pressed today to explain to a modern grade schooler that Johnson County was once a prized agricultural center.
Here in Douglas County we sometimes have trouble agreeing on much, but we do know that we don't want to be like Topeka (as it relates to commercial development), and we don't want to be like Johnson County (as it relates to suburban development). The truth is we can't afford to be so smug.
Look at the subtle dishonesty of our feel-good place names. "Quail Run" should be "Where Quail Used to Run"; "Orchard Lane" should be "Where the Orchard Used to Be." Now we're seeing residential developments with the word "farm" in them, but the farm is no longer there.
Much as we designate certain lands for industrial purposes, should we also designate other lands for agricultural, in perpetuity, no residential development allowed? Certainly some farmland is more productive than others, but who makes that call? Our community will be richer if many criteria are factored into the equation, and poorer if left only to the cost analysis of the developer.
The Meairs farmstead, for instance, established on the banks of the Wakarusa in 1854, is thought to be the oldest farm continually operated by one family in the state. There are other family farms that, under other criteria, would be similarly compelling. At what point does eliminating prime agricultural land for mediocre suburban housing become like trading the golden goose for a handful of magic beans?
In the '80s and '90s, Lawrence was cutting edge with the development of upscale housing built around golf courses. While golf course residential development centered on the leisure theme of those times, our catch words today, in an era when even President Bush has to admit that global warming is real, are words like "sustainability" and "sense of place." Should we build residential "smartcode" developments around working farms instead of golf courses? Could those neighbors be walking to the vegetable stand just down the road instead of harvesting errant golf balls that have found their way into the backyard? Planning for the preservation of prime agricultural land is what our community should be thinking about if we don't want to "lose the farm."
- Dennis J. Brown has owned and operated a small family business in Lawrence since 1978.