I'm pro-business. I used to be a communications executive for a couple of multibillion-dollar, much-maligned corporations. I now teach business communications at the University of Kansas. And I think the smartest business decision that Lawrence could make to ensure prosperity for present and future generations is to preserve the farmland near the airport northeast of town. Unfortunately, unless we act quickly, Lawrence is about to do the opposite.
Our City Commission will soon discuss a document with the yawn-inspiring title of "Chapter Seven - Industrial and Employment Related Land Use in Horizon 2020." That chapter, which, if approved, will become part of our local planning policy, recommends that the farmland near the airport become "a new industrial area." However, Chapter Seven also states that "the preservation of high-quality agricultural land, which has been recognized as a finite resource that is important to the regional economy, is of important value to the community." And the chapter concedes, "At least one of the (new industrial) sites identified above (Airport) has some amount of high-quality agricultural land."
How high is that quality? Virtually all of the land to be buried under those new developments is Class 1 soil, the highest possible agricultural rating. Class 1 is the equivalent of an Olympic gold medal for farmland. In other words, Lawrence is about to adopt a policy to cover, with industrial development, some of the best farmland in the world.
For the following reasons, such a move is second-best business logic.
¢ Dwindling energy resources increase the importance of fertile, local farmland. Currently, about 1 percent of the world's annual energy expenditures go to producing ammonia for agricultural fertilizer. In our energy-tight future, that level can't be sustained, which means less fertilizer and the consequent decrease of productive farmland. Furthermore, the energy costs of importing food from distant locations will continue to increase. Bottom line: Local, naturally fertile farmland becomes a powerful economic asset for a community.
¢ Decreasing water supplies in western Kansas and elsewhere increase the importance of farmland with reliable water sources. Underground water supplies in western Kansas continue to decline, signaling the reduction of irrigation, and that means reduced crop yields.
In its descriptions of Lawrence's airport-area farmland, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continually uses two descriptions: "occasionally flooded" and "overwash," the second term meaning water that arrives in the area and is retained. And the Kansas River runs just south of the airport farmland. Our local problem may be, on occasion, too much water - sometimes tough for agriculture but devastating for industrial development.
Paving, which reduces soil absorption, would increase the flooding. Bottom line: In a world of diminishing farmland, our community has a valuable economic asset: some of the world's most fertile soil with plenty of water.
¢ Historically, local agriculture has diversified and strengthened local economies. Productive farmers create nonagricultural jobs. Generations ago, when most food was produced locally, farmers who harvested enough to feed their communities freed their neighbors to pursue other careers; the neighbors didn't have to spend their days sowing and reaping to feed themselves. Instead, they become doctors, teachers, business-owners, all the professions that diversify a healthy local economy.
As local food sources become increasingly important in an energy-tight world, history may hold lessons for us. Bottom line: Abundant local food supplies can help sustain economic diversity and strength in Lawrence.
What's the alternative to the farmland? Put in industrial development, which - if we find tenants for flood-prone ground - might create medium-wage warehouse jobs, require expensive roads and waterlines and increase flooding problems. It's hard to do indoor business in standing water, and surely North Lawrence wants to know where all that formerly absorbed water will go. According to Lawrence's own studies, that part of our community already needs millions of dollars in flood prevention technology.
On the other hand, we could help ensure long-term prosperity for Lawrence by saving the world's best farmland. And we could rewrite Chapter Seven to include policies that reduce energy expenditures, reduce flooding and promote economic diversity by protecting local farmland.
What can you do? Please urge city officials to say yes to good, long-term business planning, yes to the value of the best farmland in the world - and no to the current version of Chapter Seven. Let's promote good business in Lawrence by protecting an irreplaceable economic asset: our valuable local farmland.