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For the week of Mar. 8 through Mar. 14, 2000

Commissioners didn’t do the math on the Baseline decision

Commentary by Pepin Corso-Harris

A pivotal point on which Blaine County commissioners are basing their Feb. 14 denial of the Baseline Ranch Subdivision is flawed.

The commissioners quoted the county’s comprehensive plan as the basis for their responsibility to preserve lands in agricultural use, to encourage agricultural activity and to ensure that commercial farmland will continue as a long-term use.

However, they seem to be working with a skewed definition of "commercial agriculture" and a severely limited idea of how farmland can be used productively. It seems they believe that a large agricultural operation is automatically a viable commercial operation—the "bigger is better" school of thought.

I have been at numerous meetings over the years when the commissioners have received testimony from Blaine County residents who farm small spreads telling them they can be productive. Some of their farms are as small as 5 acres. Some actually out-produce the yield per acre of the mega-acreage farms! But are they viable? Can these farmers make a living off of them? Many of these smaller farms are worked by owners who have "day jobs" in town to keep them afloat.

My husband and I work 160 acres. We can only dream about being able to support our family and work exclusively on a piece of ground this size. My husband works uptown, too.

The reality is that the cost of raising a crop and purchasing and maintaining equipment, compared with the revenue earned from that crop, just doesn't pencil out.

So how much ground does it take to be viable? Many of the mega-acreage farms appear viable, but in reality there is outside income helping those owners as well.

The bottom line: by denying the Baseline Ranch Subdivision—based on the endangerment of agricultural activity—the commissioners are ignoring the current economic facts of farming.

What’s more, the commissioners stated they were concerned about the effect the subdivision would have on surrounding farming operations. That's a strange reason for denying the subdivision when a majority of neighboring farmers either wrote or declared during the hearings that they didn't have a problem with the subdivision.

After denying this division of land based largely on the comprehensive plan's mandate to preserve commercial agriculture, I'd like to know how the commissioners are establishing which parcels are the ones they are mandated to preserve.

Does the county have a written definition for commercial agriculture? How do the commissioners choose which farms are commercially viable and which aren't?

For all of these reasons, the lawmakers appear to have an illogical position from which to deny an application to subdivide.

Pepin Corso-Harris and her husband, Mike Harris, own a 160 acre farm south of Bellevue.


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