John Hardin Jr. cares about what happens to the most productive farmland in the world. He knows that includes millions of acres of land in the Midwest. And he also knows that unless farmland is preserved, improved and protected through soil conservation measures, it will be much tougher to meet ever-increasing food demands.
Hardin, his son, David, and their families farm and raise hogs in Hendricks County. If there was ever a Hoosier destined to understand why people in New England started talking about “smart growth” and preserving farmland decades ago, it’s Hardin.
“I grew up within 7 miles of the Circle in downtown Indianapolis,” he says. His father, John Hardin Sr., farmed in Marion County. Hardin Jr. knew about farming on the edge of urban development at an early age.
Land use planning
Hardin moved to Hendricks County in 1968. The county didn’t have a master plan for land use. Indianapolis hadn’t exploded into the doughnut counties yet, but people were starting to move to the country. They often bought valuable acres of farm ground — far more than they needed for a house.
Hendricks County, like Johnson County and several of the doughnut counties around Indianapolis, wound up with lots of homes built on a few acres up and down county roads in the late 1960s and ’70s. Some counties began requiring people to own 5 acres to build a house, trying to slow development.
“All that got us was a house on an acre and 4 acres of weeds,” Hardin says. “Counties tried various approaches, but most of them left land that was wasted instead of protected. Often parcels were so narrow that it wasn’t even practical for someone to farm the land not used by the family that built a house.”
Starting in 1978, Hardin chaired a Hendricks County task force charged with establishing the county master land use plan. The plan was approved unanimously by the county council in 1982 and implemented in 1983. Policies have been formed and reformed over the years since then.
American Farmland Trust is a nonprofit organization formed in 1980 by a diverse group of people concerned about the loss of farmland. It helped promote conservation easements to protect farmland. It also supported “smart growth,” a concept that promoted clustering houses where development was inevitable, but saving as much land for agriculture as possible.
Hardin is not only a member of AFT, but is vice chairman of the board of directors. He continues to promote ideas like smart growth, conservation tillage and cover crops to preserve and improve farmland.
Because of Purdue University Extension programs and an increasing awareness that farmland was disappearing, a couple of decades ago there was a rash of programs and interest among planners and farmers in some of the smart growth principles that have worked in Eastern states. But you hear little about them in many circles today.
Maybe it’s time to beat the drum again. Maybe a whole new generation of planners and potential first-time home buyers who want “a house in the country” should be educated about how people can build homes without wasting farmland. It’s one of the goals of AFT, Hardin says, and it’s important if there will be enough viable farmland left for the future.