Development threatening crops, agricultural experts say
By Eric Kalis
Residential development encroaching on South Miami-Dade County agricultural areas threatens the area's crop supply, agriculture experts say, and is enticing farmers to sell their acreage to cash in on higher land values.
Dense residential buildings rising in the area are misplaced, say the area's two county commissioners, who said they would like to see developments closer to mass transit.
The lack of an adequate buffer between residential development and farmland is causing friction between farmers and new residents, said Homestead farmer John Alger, an officer at the Dade County Farm Bureau. Farmers "don't make great neighbors," Mr. Alger said. "We stink and are noisy. It is not what people want to see in their backyards."
Some farmers fear lawsuits from nearby residents who could be exposed to pesticides used to protect crops, said Mr. Alger, who is trying to unload several hundred acres inside the Urban Development Boundary, a border established in 1975 along the county's southern and western borders. Development west and south of the boundary is limited to one house every five acres.
It's easier for farmers to sell valuable land rather than attempt to work without disrupting their neighbors, Mr. Alger said.
"We have to use pesticides early in the morning for fear of someone getting a headache and thinking we caused it," he said. "We don't want people getting ideas in this litigious society."
Four farmers recently shut down operations at the Florida City farmer's market, one of the state's oldest open produce markets, said Patricia Robbins, founder of Farm Share, a nonprofit food-recovery program in Florida City. Other farmers cannot resist lucrative offers from developers for their land, she said.
"This is 100% caused by development," Ms. Robbins said. "One farmer sold his land for $100,000 an acre, and it was resold for $150,000 an acre. A farmer cannot afford to keep the land when it has such a high value to put homes on."
The increasing number of farmers going out of business in South Miami-Dade is resulting in a scarcity of locally grown fruits and vegetables, Ms. Robbins said. So organizations such as Farm Share spend money on truckers and fuel to pick up fresh produce from the region's ports.
County commissioners are "treading on dangerous water" by allowing development so close to agricultural areas, said Commissioner Katy Sorenson. "This is a compatibility issue," she said. Agriculture "is an important industry for Miami-Dade. It would be tragic to create residential [development] where we have a thriving industry."
Housing development should be concentrated nearer mass transit, said Ms. Sorenson, a proponent of maintaining the current Urban Development Boundary. County commissioners must reinforce that idea to federal officials when asking for funds to expand Metrorail, she said.
The county is facing dual challenges of supplying more housing to meet demand and protecting agriculture, said Commissioner Dennis Moss. The "constant tug-of-war" underscores a need to focus on building out transit corridors, he said.
That kind of smart growth could help protect farmers and South Miami-Dade residents, said Mr. Alger, who supports controlled expansion of the Urban Development Boundary.
"The Urban Development Boundary was not meant to be a fixed line when it was implemented," Mr. Alger said. "Now suddenly it is a fixed line. Let the supply and demand dictate [the boundary's expansion]. If the inventory inside the boundary decreases, there is nothing wrong with expanding smartly and slowly."