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Urban Sprawl: Opportunity or Threat?

Posted Mar. 1, 1999

Several years ago a friend gave me a copy of an article from the New York Times entitled "Maryland Farmers See Urban Neighbors as a Means of Survival". The article focused on the efforts of Phil Gottwals, Howard County Extension Agriculture Marketer, in convincing farmers to see urban sprawl as an untapped market rather than ushers of doom. "It's the best thing that can happen to you because your market just came here." said Mr. Gottwals to the area farmers. Instead of growing soybeans or hay, which he said takes hundreds of acres and a strong commodities market for a profit, farmers should turn to produce. He also encouraged them to sell directly to stores, restaurants and individuals and start "U-pick" farms.

Mr. Gottwals cited the case of Giant Food as an example of how farmers can take advantage of local markets. Giant, the state's largest supermarket chain, initiated a program several years ago to find local farmers as suppliers. In three years Giant went from working with 11 local farmers to 100 growers whose fields are not more than 200 miles from a store. While Texoma's agriculture is more forage based than Maryland's, I think it is safe to say that in many ways our rural situation mirrors much of what is happening on the East Coast.

Take north-central Texas for example; the Dallas-Fort Worth area is growing at a rate of 300 people a day, a growth rate that, if continued, would give the 16-county region surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth a population of nearly five million by the year 2000. By the year 2020 the projected population will increase to 6,500,000. While the thought of competing with all these people for a spot on I-35 during rush hour makes me nauseous, I am intrigued by the marketing possibilities this mass of humanity presents.

Local has become a magic word with consumers. The perception of the public is that something grown by a local farmer is safer, fresher and tastes better than something grown in California. Combine that with a heightened awareness of eating properly with more fruits and vegetables and a rapidly growing consumer base close to the farm, and you have a recipe for marketing success.

Growing high value crops is not for everyone. However, if you view urban sprawl as an opportunity to generate additional on-farm income as opposed to a threat to your way of life, give me a call. I will be glad to discuss high value crop production and marketing opportunities with you.