The Airport Industrial Park will soon come before the City Commission for approval and rezoning from agriculture to light industrial. This project would pave over the best farm dirt of Douglas County, perhaps of our region, and will cut the heart out of a 140-year-old successful family farm.
As an area owner, nearby development will increase my land value. But let's step back and consider the long view. In the last 50 years, there has been little building north of the Kansas Turnpike. Why? For two reasons, both involving floods.
First, it is likely that the area will flood, sooner or later, just as it did in 1844, 1903, and Black Thursday, July 1951. Moreover, the new levees trap local rainfall within North Lawrence, sometimes causing a self-inflicted internal flood which can be relieved only by giant pumps.
Second, repeated floods of the Kansas River have deposited on the floodplains an excellent, deep, permeable, silt-loam soil which is exceptional to farm.
I have never observed a farm inside the river bend north of Lawrence to lie fallow very long. In this fertile crescent we see no abandoned farms sprouting honey locust and cedar trees like you see in the uplands. There are fewer farmsteads and more consolidation - same as everywhere. But just about every dry acre in Lawrence's fertile crescent is under cultivation by somebody every year. That is evidence of consistent success.
By comparison, yesterday's promising building developments have become today's blight. One need only drive North Second Street to Midland Junction to review the evidence, the vacant and marginally used rusty metal buildings and weedy concrete pads that are a community embarrassment. When markets or circumstances change, corporate businesses often go bankrupt and, like Farmland Industries, leave the mess for the community to clean up.
Lawrence's fertile crescent remains a clean, maintenance-free, income-producing asset. At our community's gateway, the farmland is an advertisement of Lawrence's prosperity.
There is potential for growth. Commodity prices are up. Ethanol and biofuels crops are diverting farm acreage. There is a world food crisis. Aquifers in western Kansas are drying up. Water in California and Arizona is tight. Good farm land, especially with water or rainfall, is once again in demand.
We could also expand our local economy and employment by returning to more intensive, traditional farming. Historically, the Kaw Bottoms had diversified agriculture on many smaller farms, including truck farms. This old model may be the new smart alternative.
"A four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre; a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. Big farms have long compensated for the disequilibrium with sheer quantity. But their economies of scale come from mass distribution, and with diesel fuel costing more than $4 per gallon in many locations, it's no longer efficient to transport food 1,500 miles from where it's grown." (Dan Barber, "Change We Can Stomach," New York Times Sunday Opinion, May 11, 2008.)
But growing high-value crops commercially requires deep, loamy soils. We have considerable "prime farmland" in Douglas County but only a small area of the right stuff.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil surveys, now accessible online, tell us specifics on the Eudora and Rossville silt loams and associated soils of our fertile crescent. These soils are agricultural capability "1." They are 80 inches deep, well drained, highly permeable, ideal pH, high natural fertility, high water capacity - in a word: exceptional, also rare. Rossville silt loam, found at the proposed industrial site, covers only about four-tenths of 1 percent of Douglas County.
In addition, the sandy silt soils of the Kansas River plain are a sop for rainfall, capable of soaking up from 0.8 to 2.0 inches of water per hour (compared, for example, to zero-0.06 of an inch for clay silt soils near the Wakarusa). Unpaved farm soils are the most effective and least costly flood-control device in North Lawrence.
The City of Lawrence should designate commercial and industrial land. But when rezoning farm land for development, let's be scientific. We have soil surveys to help us distinguish which farm land is rare, exceptional, and valuable for our future. If we are going to be prepared for 50 years from now, I suggest (mangling a farmers' saying) that we save the best and sell the rest.