FORT WAYNE – Lenny Shank, a Huntertown farmer, is not so much angry as he is sad.
Shank fears that his family's way of life is disappearing, and while he understands the need for economic growth, he is unsure where farmers fit in or what the long-term outcome will be.
In the face of a rapidly changing landscape, Shank and others feel as though they have no voice in the matter.
“It's just sad; it's all changing so fast,” Shank said.
“People say we could move, but where would we move? What would we do? This is all we've ever done.”
The northwest corner of Allen County is one of the fastest-growing areas for growth and economic development in the state, with new schools having been built, dozens of new subdivisions and the new Parkview medical complex area contributing heavily to that and other growth.
Many times, prime acreage is sought by developers, who are able to offer more money than another farmer might offer for the same piece of land, Shank said.
Many farmers who are facing retirement and have no family members willing to take over their operations understandably sell to developers, especially when developers offer them $30,000 to $35,000 an acre, he said.
The going price for farmland, depending on the quality of the ground, is usually between $7,000 and $11,000 an acre.
“You can't blame them,” Shank said.
It doesn't take much to find other examples of farmers being squeezed by development, increased traffic and drainage problems.
Last summer, about 80 residents signed a petition opposing a 102-lot rural subdivision near Grabill, citing traffic, safety and drainage as concerns.
All surrounding properties are zoned for agriculture. Although the project was not recommended by the Plan Commission, the Allen County commissioners approved the plans.
When U.S. 24 was redesigned and constructed in east Allen County last year, two neighboring farmers lost nearly 800 acres of tillable ground.
Tillable farm acreage across the state and the nation is also lost every year to wind farms.
Every minute, America loses more than an acre of farmland, a majority of it to development, according to the American Farmland Trust in Washington, D.C.
Farm acreage in Allen County declined nearly 5 percent between 2002 and 2012 and about 5.2 percent between 1992 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While farm acreage is shrinking, the census also shows a growing number of larger farming operations.
Roger Hadley, president of the American Farm Bureau, farms in east Allen County and lost about 60 acres he was farming when the new portion of U.S. 24 was constructed last year.
“My neighbor, who farms land in Indiana and Ohio, lost more than 600 acres to the new highway,” which stretches from Fort Wayne to Toledo, Hadley said.
Hadley also points out that a large chunk of farmland near the U.S. 24 and Woodburn interchange was purchased for development of a truck stop and other businesses, including a hotel.
“In nearby Leo, there is almost no acreage left to farm due to development, so I understand the feelings in Eel River Township,” Hadley said.
“Yes, development will happen and yes, they will have problems.”
Hadley is working with county officials to revise drafted zoning laws that would enforce stricter regulations for livestock farms in Allen County.
Without revisions, the new zoning would allow livestock operations in only about six locations across the county, Hadley said.
“People who have built new homes in rural areas complain of the smell of those operations, and they lean heavily on elected officials to get rid of them,” Hadley said.
“When you do away with acreage and livestock, it's our food source that you are getting rid of,” he said.
Farmers complain that suburban growth has not only reduced available farmland, it has also increased traffic on country roads and increased the chance of flooding.
Shank and other Eel River farmers have banded together to protest nearby Huntertown's plan to build a wastewater treatment plant, fearing that the Hathaway Road plant will bring added development of the surrounding agricultural community and more drainage, flooding and traffic concerns.
If a corn crop is flooded, farmers could lose more than $400 an acre, Shank said.
“I would not be so much against it if officials could assure me that the ditch would be fixed to take on the extra load,” Shank said.
“But so far, they've done nothing.”
Times are changing, and farming is changing.
“It's hard to get farm machinery up and down the road, and people are not as nice as they used to be,” Shank said.
Flooding concerns are one of the main reasons Eel River Township farmers oppose Huntertown's proposed wastewater treatment plant.
The town's plans for a wastewater treatment plant include pumping the treated wastewater 4 miles west on Hathaway Road away from Huntertown and discharging it into Geller Ditch and Eel River in Eel River Township.
Huntertown Council President Pat Freck said in May that Eel River residents “were not ratepayers” and that the property in that area “had always flooded.”
Shank farms the property that was established by his grandparents, Gerald and Sally, in the late 1940s with his brother and nephew, who live nearby.
Shank and his wife, Linda, have two grown daughters who have successful careers off the farm, and despite his feelings of helplessness over the rapidly changing agricultural landscape, he looks to the future.
“I have high hopes for my grandson, who is 4,” Shank said. “He rides the tractor all the time and loves it.”
No farms, no food
Much of the East Coast has put preventive measures in place, through state government, to protect farmland, but that has not happened in the Midwest, said Michael Baise, the Midwest director for American Farmland Trust, who works in the Bloomington office.
“AFT was established in 1980 specifically for that reason,” Baise said.
“Indiana, Iowa and Illinois have what we call prime soils that are best used for agriculture production, and we really need measures in place that would protect those areas,” Baise said.
Once a piece of prime farmland is paved, there is no turning back; it will never be used for producing food again, he said.
Baise understands the sadness over losing a way of life, but farming – like the world – continues to evolve, he said.
Growing up on a farm in Illinois, Baise, 60, remembers that farming was different not that long ago.
“Farmers raised their own food and planted diversified crops with diversified livestock,” he said.
“With the family's help, they usually farmed a few hundred acres.”
With advances in technology, many farmers today are able to tend to thousands of acres and plant two staple crops – corn and soybeans – and many have no livestock at all, Baise said.
“We're losing a way of life and adapting to a new one,” he said.
But aside from adaptable changes, prime farmland is a basic for agriculture production.
That's the worry of farmers and farming organizations such as AFT: What happens to the world's food supply as farmland disappears?
“World population hit 7 billion last fall and is expected to be 9 or 10 billion by 2025,” Baise said.
“We will have to feed a lot more people.”
All in the family
George Felger established the family farm on Giesking Road in Churubusco in 1891, handing it over to his son, the late Ken Felger. Third-generation brothers Don and Kenneth, better known as “Bud,” farm the land today. Don's son, Aaron, 24, recently joined the operation and marks the fourth generation of Felger farmers.
Don Felger, 61, lives on the family farm near Eel River and Riverside cemeteries and Bud nearby on Carroll Road.
“In my whole life, except for time in the military, the only place I have ever lived is here on the farm,” he said.
Although the family farm is located on a remote road in northwest Allen County and he has not seen too much development in the immediate neighborhood, Felger and his brother have seen the effects of economic development along Carroll Road.
Felger lives near Eel River, into which several primary ditches flow. As development has increased, so has the water flow in the ditches and Eel River, he said.
Huntertown's proposal to build a wastewater treatment plant and dump the treated water into the Eel River is something he is “not too happy about,” he said.
The brothers farm thousands of acres, and when the river overflowed last year and flooded nearby fields, they lost a lot of crops, Felger said.
“I just don't see how anyone can say that adding any amount of water will not cause more flooding,” he said.
He recently had his eye on a piece of farm property that he and his brother were interested in buying, but it went “that way” to developers, he said.
He has no doubt that farmland is disappearing, because the price of farmland is skyrocketing.
An 80-acre parcel of land Felger owns was appraised at $186,500, up from $106,100 just one year earlier, he said.
“The land value was readjusted over $10,000 an acre,” he said.
An appraiser recently told Felger that there was no farmland in Eel River Township to buy, he said.
Mike Gross, 65, has retired from teaching agriculture at Carroll High School and now runs the family's 100-year-old farm in Allen County.
Gross agrees that the face of farming is changing, but he does not think it can be stopped or reversed.
“No one saved the mom-and-pop businesses,” Gross said.
“I'm not saying it's right, but that's the way it is.”
“If we continue to lose farmland and not use the land wisely, then I think there is hunger in our future,” he said.
“We're going to have growth, that's a given, but it's so hard to see beautiful farmland go away,” he said. “I don't know the answer.”