Iowa Public Television


Farmer Sees Profit & Coexistence Among Urban Sprawl

posted on June 28, 2002

A Northern Illinois University study estimates that 1.5 (M) million acres of productive farmland are lost every year to urbanization. That's about two acres every minute.

Many farmers in the pathway of such urban sprawl see their land values exceed whatever they could possibly earn from farming the land -- so they sell it to developers who intend to "plant" houses instead of row crops.

But some farmers see an opportunity to coexist with the urbanization … possibly even become an amenity to the rural area. Producer Nancy Crowfoot reports on one Midwest farmer who has "adapted" to his surroundings.


Farmer Sees Profit & Coexistence Among Urban Sprawl

This may look like prime agricultural farmland. But if there is a "fence" row of red fire hydrants instead wood and wire … chances are the land in east central Illinois is owned, or will soon be purchased, by a developer.

Dave Bengtson has watched the rural landscape surrounding the family farm he grew up on – just 35 miles south of Chicago -- change since his high school days more than twenty years ago.

He thought little of the changing landscape in high school, when he told his teacher he planned to stay in farming – on the land his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had tilled since the early 1900s.

Dave Bengtson, suburban farmer, Village of Homer Glen, Illinois:

"He wanted a show of hands of how many people in class knew what there were going to do and I, my hand go up pretty fast.

"I knew I was going to farm, no question about it.

And then shortly afterward, found out that that was sort of in question."

The future was "sort of in question" because Bengtson's father said he was going to sell off parcels of his farmland to developers … developers who planned to create new suburbs for those who commute to Chicago.

Dave Bengtson, farmer, Village of Homer Glen, Illinois

"This real estate over here was all part of the family farm where the homes are, that used to be corn and soybeans, used to farm it at one time."

No matter the loss of much of the family land, Bengtson and his brother still wanted to farm. On some of the remaining family acreage and on leased land, they grew corn and beans one year. But he said such crops were not conducive to farming in what were now the suburbs.

So the two switched to a crop not only conducive … but marketable … to "city folks" – pumpkins.

Dave Bengtson, Village of Homer Glen, Illinois: "Pumpkins were the one thing that my brother and I felt had a lot of potential in the Halloween business, selling entertainment."

"We charge people $7 or $8 per person to come to the farm. For that we have pig racing, we have a haunted barn, we have a fun barn.

"People spend probably two, three, four hours sometimes a whole afternoon here. There's quite a bit for them to do."

It is a business they were unsure of when they began the venture in the early 1980s. Bengtson credits the purchase of one, $2,000 advertisement in the Chicago Tribune for a successful first year.

But the credit must also go to the suburban setting

where there was:

-a built-in consumer market.

- a built-in workforce when he needs to hire 150-200 employees for the month of October.

- And the availability of small vacant 50 to 70 acre parcels of land to lease …which is all the land needed for a pumpkin patch.

Whether an ideal situation or not, farming in suburban areas must be a scenario that works for many in agriculture. A 2001 USDA report cited that in 1997, farms in metropolitan areas made up 33% of all farms. They made up 16% of the cropland and produced one-third of the value of U.S. agricultural output.

Nonetheless, farming on the fringe isn't always ideal.

Dave Bengtson: "The roads are busy, it's hard to take agricultural equipment on the roads if we have to and we really have to be respectful of our neighbors. Now we have neighbors adjoining the farm and you'd be wise to not fire up a diesel engine at 6:00 in the morning."

Bengtson also must deal with landlords who see agriculture as just a short-term land use until they are ready to construct more lucrative housing developments. For example, after seven years of farming a patch of land adjacent to the pumpkin farm, Bengtson had to make way for the inevitable housing development.

The future is uncertain for the entire operation –which includes some cropland, a Halloween gift shop, a "seasonal" graveyard, and a haunted barn – as it is also on leased land … a "scary" thought.

Dave Bengtson: "That it could all end tomorrow. Someone could walk through that door right now and say that, you know, that this is it."

"We learned to live with that. We've been doing that long enough where we accept that. Maybe if the reality of it actually happened it might be a different story, but I really believe we accept that."

Knowing he has little control over his future in the

Halloween business … has spurred him and his brother to invest in another seasonal crop – Christmas trees.

They planted 85,000 trees and just completed their second season selling to the public.

Ten miles from the pumpkin farm, in Frankfort, Illinois, they are still in the midst of suburbia. But this time however, there are no landlords involved. In the late 1980s, they were able to buy land ... although they paid what they considered "development" prices rather than agricultural prices ... $7,000 an acre. It is land now that he expects developers would offer to pay $35,000 to $40,000 per acre.

But no matter the high price of land, the urban sprawl and the "restricted" farming conditions the Bengtson brothers are not leaving their agricultural roots in eastern Illinois.

They accept the challenges. After all, their market for both Christmas trees and pumpkins, was created by the congestion and continued expansion of urban sprawl.

Suburban growth has not only changed the face of farming here … but changed the face of the entire rural community.

Mayor Russ Petrizzo, Village of Homer Glen:

"In the last few years it's changed. And the surrounding areas, they're grabbing our properties and putting in the homes, the kind of home sites that we aren't accustomed to, high density and it wasn't the character of Homer, Homer Township."

Next week, we'll see how one township decided to cope with the invasion of the suburbs they didn't seek.

For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture news rural suburban urban