Farmers Take Back Land Slated For Housing

Over the past half-century more than 20 million acres of U.S. farmland were transformed into housing developments. With new home construction all but stopped, farmers in many areas are buying or leasing land once slated for development and planting crops on it.

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If you feel like the tradition of farming in the U.S. is disappearing, listen to this number. Over the past half century, more than 20 million acres of farmland in the United States have been transformed. Often it's developers in fast-growing areas buying up land to build new housing. But then came the recent housing bust. In some places at least, farmers are taking the land back. Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: When Stacy Brimhall was growing up in Gilbert, Arizona, south of Phoenix, the landscape was pretty much all like the 500-acre parcel we see from his pickup truck.

STACY BRIMHALL: This is alfalfa here. And then we have some winter wheat up here. Doesn't look like they're harvesting today.

ROBBINS: But over the decades, Brimhall sold some of his farmland at a good profit. Developers turned fields of cotton into a sea of tiled roofs. At one point, Gilbert was one of the fastest-growing residential communities in America.

Back at his office, Brimhall shows me a map of the area. The parcel we visited is on it, slated for development itself until the housing bust hit land owner Fulton Homes.

BRIMHALL: You know, like all the home builders in Phoenix, or in Arizona, Fulton went through some hard times. They had to file bankruptcy.

ROBBINS: To cover its debts, the company had to sell the land. Stacy Brimhall saw another opportunity.

BRIMHALL: Everyone was grasping for cash. They had bought this at $80,000 an acre. We bought it from them at 17,500 an acre.

ROBBINS: Brimhall picked up the land for about a fifth of what it last sold for. Now it's a farm again. I spoke with three farmers who've expanded their operations recently in similar ways. Rick Gibson is with the University of Arizona Agricultural Extension Service. He says the trend is real, though there are no hard numbers yet. Gibson says it's not just established farmers like Stacy Brimhall.

RICK GIBSON: We're also seeing new farmers, young farmers, coming into the business. And they don't have the resources to pay big bucks for land, so they are leasing and living on the profit that they make.

ROBBINS: The profits are there because commodity prices have been high, especially for cotton and hay.

GIBSON: I think that the farmers are really good business people, have very sharp pencils. And where you see a return to agriculture, you will know that there has been some really good thinking that has gone into it.

ROBBINS: No one I spoke with thinks the return to agriculture is permanent. Jennifer Dempsey is director of the Farmland Information Center in Massachusetts. She says the trend will only last until there's more pressure for development.

JENNIFER DEMPSEY: I feel like it will start up again and then we'll have productive agricultural land being converted to houses.

ROBBINS: That's why farmer Stacy Brimhall says he keeps himself from becoming attached to any particular piece of land. That 500 acres we visited? It's already surrounded on all sides by development.

BRIMHALL: When building starts up again, this is the first to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: Which is fine, he says. Then he'll make a profit from selling the land. That could be three, five, 10 years away. Meantime, at least something's growing on it.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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