Ronning told the luncheon crowd that the country loses a million acres of farmland a year and is expected to lose another 120 million acres over the next 60 years. She cited a report that said the United States will stop exporting food by 2025, as the country will need every morsel to feed its citizens due to farmland the nation will have lost by then.
“We’re losing way too much, way too soon,” said Ronning, the keynote speaker at the Ninth Annual Growing Communities Conference put on by the Grand Valley Metro Council.
The president of 1000 Friends of Minnesota, a grassroots Smart Growth network, said the United States has lost farmland and open space because sprawl, defined by her as development done for the automobile, has beaten the higher-density, green-space-saving policy — so far.
But she added that the tide was turning.
Ronning noted that ballot measures to preserve open spaces were passing at a record pace nationally. Two years ago, she said voters approved 83 percent of these proposals. And they passed 70 percent nationwide in 2001, topped by California’s Proposition 40.
Last year, left-coast voters ratified $2.6 billion to conserve California’s land, and by doing so they created the largest conservation bond package in the nation’s history. She said all races and most age groups overwhelmingly supported the measure.
“They are raising their taxes to protect open space,” she said.
Then Ronning pointed out another trend that was surfacing. She said that real estate investors were beginning to shy away from urban areas that were sprawled-out and were funneling their money to cities that were managing growth in a smart fashion.
“The reason people move out of the cities, among crime and better schools, is that they want to be close to nature. That shows us that building good public spaces and open spaces within our existing cities can help to keep the populations there,” she said.
Ronning offered both praise and criticism for the recently passed Farm Bill. She felt the $38.5 billion that will be spent over the next 11 years to conserve farmland was an unprecedented amount of money to dedicate to saving open space. But, at the same time, she called it a “horrible, horrible bill” because the cash would be spent on the wrong people.
“With all of this money in it, and there’s buckets of money in it, we’re hard pressed to support it because it favors large corporate farms. It really doesn’t do anything for the small, family farmer,” she said.
“So even though there are billions for land conservation and farmland protection, we’re squeezing off the small, family farmer.”
She reminded those in attendance that if they wanted to get a slice of the bill’s money pie this year, their proposals for PDR programs, acquisitions and easements were due by July 15.
Ronning is rural. She was raised on a family farm in western Minnesota and attended a one-room schoolhouse that didn’t have indoor plumbing. She worked in public broadcasting and in real estate.
She advised the Metro Council luncheon crowd that if they were interested in saving open spaces in the region, they had to get more people, from all walks of life, involved with their cause. Ronning said it was especially important for cities to get school officials on the Smart Growth bandwagon because poor schools were the major reason why people march to outlying areas.
“State leaders need to understand that planning activities have to be funded, and activists need to understand that any law is only as good as the citizens watchdog group to keep it in place,” she said. “You need an outside citizens group to make sure that the rules are kept true to form.”
If inspiration is needed to grow that group, Ronning suggested looking at the state’s seal.
“You have the elk on the left. You’ve got a moose on the right. They’re holding up the shield and in the center is the motto ‘I will protect,'” she said. “It’s in your blood. It’s your heritage. All you need to do is live up to that.”