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Farmland loss is like soil erosion — it happens gradually

new construction on lost farmland
ANOTHER NEW STORE: Grand openings are exciting for many people. If you think about the farmland lost for the store, it takes the edge off the excitement.
A new store where 20 acres of crops used to grow is a wake-up call.

A new huge store just opened a couple of miles away. In fact, the grand opening is happening as I write this. It happens to be a Meijer, but it could be Walmart, Kroger or many others. These chains have opened new stores nearby, as well.

Everyone will fill the huge parking lot today and check out the new store. Everyone but me. I’ll pass. If I attended the grand opening, I would be one of the few worried about how much land the new store ate up.

Yes, it’s at the edge of a developing area. But until construction began, it was farmland. It was still growing corn and soybeans. The store will sell tons upon tons of food over its lifetime, but none of it will be grown where the store sits.

That’s the rub. Every time a store goes up, it’s one more chunk of land that will no longer raise crops. No more Allis-Chalmers tractors or Gleaner combines in this field.

It’s not just the land that the store takes — it’s what goes with it. There are acres of parking lot and a retention pond constructed to hold water from the parking lot and building’s roof. There’s a gas station way out front by the highway.

Unintended consequences
Whether or not this is the end of development in that particular area remains to be seen. History would say probably not. Once a big anchor store goes in, others follow. People living in new houses or apartments nearby sometimes follow, too.

The grand opening is far from the first in Johnson County over the past couple of years. First one farm becomes a store, then another. It’s kind of like soil erosion — it happens gradually. After a while, you become numb to it.

This store is a brand-new location. But some companies replace older stores. What few realize is that once those older stores are abandoned, it’s often tough to find someone else to fill the space. If it was the anchor store for a strip mall, the whole mall may suffer.

One thing is certain. The abandoned buildings won’t be torn down and put back into farming. The worst-case scenario is that it becomes dead, wasted space.

Make it personal
Losing farmland to development is personal for me. A retention pond for a large subdivision occupies the space where the house I grew up in once sat. The toolshed where I nearly ran the D-17 through the wall is also gone, the area covered by water.

We didn’t own the farm, so losing it to development wasn’t our choice. But it’s tough enough to see where I grew up in houses and ponds that I seldom go down that road anymore.

Companies have a right to build new stores. Local governments want the property tax money they generate. But is anyone making sure they don’t use more land than necessary? Is anyone making sure blighted areas aren’t created where thriving stores once existed?

Or are we all just standing back and watching, like we watch soil wash away one particle at a time?

Planning and zoning and smart growth have slipped off the front burner in many communities. Maybe it’s time someone turned the heat back up!

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