Giving Cover to the Abuses of Big Ag

Grain elevators. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A recent commentary promoting agriculture by Brenden Weiner of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust was full of misinformation.

Weiner suggested that “working farmlands grow our food, provide scenic open space, give wildlife a place of refuge, and are the foundation of our community and economy.” He goes on to suggest that protecting farmland will preclude subdivisions—which he implies is worse than the “working landscapes” represented by farms. He is wrong on every count.

However, most land trusts base their success on acres “preserved” even if they are preserving ecological disasters-which is an accurate description of most of the farmland in the Gallatin Valley.

The inconvenient truth is that Ag is the single most significant source of environmental degradation in the United States as well as in Montana. Ag is the biggest source of species endangerment. It is the largest source of water pollution. It is the biggest contributor to soil erosion. It has destroyed more native vegetation than any other land use.  And it is hardily essential to the local Gallatin County economy.

The most important misconception is that open space is not the same as good wildlife habitat.

Wheat and hayfields dominate the Ag lands in the Gallatin Valley. Indeed, there are over 700,000 acres in farms.  By comparison, there are only 7,200 acres urbanized or about 0.8% of the land in the county. Throw in the exurban area of 44,000 acres; the combined acreage still amounts to only 5.8% of the land in the entire county.

The dominance of Ag is very noticeable if you look down while flying over the Gallatin Valley. What you will see is not subdivisions or cities, but hay and wheat fields.

The footprint of AG dramatically exceeds that of residential and exurban development. Even if Ag were relatively benign, the simple fact that it occupies more than 12 times as much land as housing tracts means it is a significant impact on the landscape.

Unfortunately for biodiversity and natural landscapes, wheat and hay fields are biological deserts. A wheat field consists of a single plant species, typically showered with pesticides and fertilizers. When the grain is harvested, it leaves behind bare soil that blows away in the wind.

If you are going to build new housing, putting it on a wheat or hayfield would significantly increase the biodiversity of the landscape.

I challenge anyone to do a simple inventory of species in a typical Bozeman neighborhood and compare it to a similar area of a wheatfield or hayfield.

In terms of biodiversity, your average urban neighborhoods harbor a hundred times more species of wildlife than a typical wheat field. In a single block of Bozeman, you are likely to see butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, numerous bird species, bats, rodents, rabbits, and depending on their location, even sometimes fox, coyotes, and deer. Most of these species are absent from the typical wheatfield.

Ag irrigation is also the main culprit that dewaters our streams and rivers jeopardizing aquatic ecosystems. And it is not just aquatic ecosystems that are impacted. Reducing water flows also reduces the streamside vegetation influenced by water—shrinking riparian vegetation. And both livestock and crop production is the number one source of water pollution in the Gallatin Valley.

Weiner suggests that these farms are producing food. One might consider these farm acres a necessary evil if they were producing crops we needed. However, most of the production in the Gallatin Valley, including wheat, dairy, and beef are so abundant that taxpayers must subsidize them. In fact, in 2019, under the Trump administration, we have shelled out more than 22 billion in government payments to farmers.

In terms of economic contribution, farms were responsible for 1.5% of the jobs in Gallatin County.  If every farm job disappeared, it would hardly be noticed. And since farmland is taxed at ridiculously low rates, any conversion of farmland to housing increases the tax base (though admittedly, it also increases service costs).

Finally, the idea that subsidizing Ag will somehow preclude subdivisions and sprawl is another myth. If Ag were so good at preventing sprawl, it wouldn’t be an issue in Bozeman. All one needs do is look at California, which as the most valuable Ag lands in the nation, and the sprawling cities there to know that Ag cannot and will not preclude sprawl.

Please don’t misinterpret me; I do not support sprawl. However, the suggestion that subdivisions are worse than Agriculture is based mostly on myth than reality.

While I am confident that there are some ecologically valuable lands that the Gallatin Land Trust acquires or can put into a conservation easement in general, the majority of the property “preserved” by land trusts are ecologically impaired and impoverished.

If groups like the Gallatin Land Trust wanted to do something more than promote environmentally destructive Ag, they would be investing in lobbying efforts to get land-use laws in place.

Oregon, for instance, has statewide zoning, and the spread of sprawl is seriously contained. Bend, Oregon, one of the fastest-growing small cities in the country, is expected to gain 30,000 new residents in the next 20 years, yet its area is likely to grow by only 2,000 acres. Why? Because strict zoning precludes sprawl outside of the Urban Growth Boundary.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy