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Farmers have a right to grow vineyards or marijuana

Jackson County’s rural landowners took a big hit 35 years ago. I helped do it.

I was a Jackson County commissioner from 1981-1985, and in November 1982 we approved an ordinance that reduced the market value of most local farmland by rezoning it Exclusive Farm Use. We changed zoning rules people had counted on. We said it was for the greater good, and that was true then and is still true.

It is also true that many rural landowners were absolutely furious.

Prior to the zone change most rural farmland could be divided into 5-acre home sites. We changed it to EFU land, which usually stopped all future divisions. Moreover, it became difficult or impossible to put dwellings even on those frozen parcels. (State law wants dwellings in cities, not on farmland.)

Local farms lost much of their resale value. Owners with more than one child could not give each of their children a part of the farm. People who planned to sell off a portion of a farm to pay bills learned they could not.

In 1982 we justified the rezoning by telling farmers we weren’t taking their land from them because that land still had value as farmland. In reality, although some large local commercial operations were economically sound, a great many smaller farms were marginal at best. People had day jobs to pay the bills, because the farms did not support themselves.

We offered two consolations to farmers. One was that farmland would be taxed at a very low rate, as farmland, not as a home site. The other was protection from complaints by neighbors.

We put into deeds clear notice to neighbors that farm practices included noise, dust, smells, spray drift, farm laborers, and everything else we could think of. Exclusive Farm Use meant it was the farmers land to farm. If he wanted to feed cattle on his land, he could do it, even if you didn’t like the smell. If frost protection propellers start up at 3 in the morning and wake up neighbors, so be it. If you live in a farm zone you know what to expect.

The farm economy here has changed because two profitable crops have emerged: vineyards and marijuana. Rural landowners who thought they were stuck with a hillside of low-value farmland now discover that prosperous people want to buy it to put in a vineyard and winery. Hillsides are great for vineyards. Other landowners with parcels that that for years grew break-even forage crops can now grow a highly profitable marijuana crop, or lease the land to someone who will. All of a sudden, EFU land is desirable and valuable.

The marijuana industry may well be a flash in the pan — like gold in Jacksonville 150 years ago — but for now it is highly profitable. Local governments and business people have long sought a high-margin industry for the valley, one that would employ people and bring money into the economy and allow independent small business entrepreneurs to flourish. We stumbled into it: marijuana and wineries.

A Mail Tribune online reader commented on a recent editorial about “Growing Pains,” calling marijuana grows an “infestation.” Like many people, he objects to marijuana. I agree the crop is less scenic than alfalfa or grapes, and solid fences are ugly. Some say the crop smells, although certainly less so than confined livestock. Marijuana currently lacks the social cachet of a vineyard. I am frequently invited to charity fundraisers at wineries, but not yet one at marijuana grow site.

I write this not as a fan of marijuana or of alcohol. I don’t like or use either of them. Like many of us, I consider it unfortunate that the two crops raising farm values are both psychoactive. Both are subject to abuse. Personally, I think America needs more clear heads, not more heads buzzed by alcohol or marijuana.

Still, I consider my private opinion of opposition to alcohol and marijuana to be irrelevant. Alcohol and marijuana are realities. We have bars, wineries and marijuana dispensaries. People drink. People smoke. What is relevant is that the decision on whether or not to grow grapes or marijuana belongs to the local farmer who we decreed had no choice but to farm, not to the neighbor who disapproves of the crop or doesn’t want his view changed.

The public made a deal with local farmers back in 1982. We owe it to them to stick to that deal now.

— Peter Sage is a retired financial adviser and former county commissioner. He grows melons on a family farm at Table Rock and writes a daily political commentary website at  www.peterwsage.blogspot.com.