Urban sprawl St. Louis region

Tom Renner must deal with issues involved in urban development that is moving eastward from the St. Louis region.

SHILOH, Ill. — Urban development is putting the squeeze on Illinois farms. And not just in Chicagoland.

The Metro East, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is growing in three directions, butting up against country that not long ago was rural landscape as far as the eye could see.

Now families that have lived and worked here for generations must deal with new problems that come with new neighbors.

“We farm right up to the Wal-Mart, the YMCA, the college, everything,” said Tom Renner, who grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa in St. Clair County, Illinois. “The town has moved against us.”

The population of St. Louis, once the largest city west of the Mississippi River, has dropped from a high of 856,000 in 1950 to just over 300,000 today. But the Greater St. Louis metropolitan area, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, has a population of nearly 3 million.

A lot of that is in Illinois. And much of it is in farm country.

“It’s like day and night difference from ’86 when my father and I started,” said Mike Kombrink, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat in O’Fallon, Illinois. “The population of O’Fallon has at least doubled, maybe tripled since then.”

Census Bureau figures back that up. O’Fallon’s population has grown from about 12,000 in 1980 to more than 28,000 today.

Commercial and residential development has changed the landscape in St. Clair County.

“We lose ground to developers every year,” Kombrink said. “They’re putting up houses pretty quickly.”

Renner’s family has been here since 1848. In addition to row crops and hay, he also raises livestock on 4,000 acres, most of which he owns.

He sees land values as a major concern.

“It’s driven the price of farmland up,” said Renner, who isn’t in selling mode. “That’s the biggest problem. Your ground is worth $4,000 an acre more than the ground down the road. That doesn’t make it any more valuable to farm it. It doesn’t produce any more bushels.”

Urban sprawl doesn’t directly affect Glenn Leighty Jr. of Cornbelt Realty & Farm Management, whose office is across the state in Lawrence County, on the Indiana border. But he does see its effects.

“When you have sprawl in places such as the Metro East area, that creates a ripple effect on land prices,” Leighty said.

“As people sell property in that area for development, they move farther and farther out in order to replace those acres. It’s the law of unintended consequences.”

Conflicts sometimes arise when urban meets rural. Renner said farmers often find themselves in a lose-lose situation when they spray close to their land borders.

“You’ve got problems with houses getting very close to the farmland,” Renner said. “We farm right up to houses. You’ve got the dicamba issue. If it drifted 3 feet, it’s a problem, let alone 30 foot. You back off 30-40 feet and leave a strip of weeds.

“But if you leave any weeds, people don’t want to see that. You till 3 feet of their grass and they get upset. I respect that. You don’t want to go out there with a hoe and hoe 15 acres of foxtail along the line. You just do the best you can and go from there.”

Kombrink also points to traffic problems, especially during planting and harvest.

“You’re driving the tractors down the road and people are go, go, go,” he said. “There’s no patience at all.”

Renner is the fifth generation of his family to farm this land. His grandson will be the seventh. And he doesn’t plan to go anywhere.

“We don’t sell land. We’re not land sellers, we’re land buyers,” he said.

“I don’t plan to sell any. My grandpa said it’s yours to farm and make a living off it, but it’s not yours to sell it and make money off it. It’s not yours to make a profit. That’s what I told my kids, and they respect that very much.”

Still he doesn’t see the situation improving.

“It’s not going to get any better,” Renner said.

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.