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Still, this doesn't address the needs of people who'd like to live within realistic commuting distance of urban areas.

A patchwork of approaches

Achieving a mix between development and land preservation may be the real challenge.

One strategy is transferable development rights, which create greater building density in some areas in exchange for less in others. This tool has allowed Montgomery County, Md., to preserve its rural flavor by concentrating development along designated corridors.

This sort of division, says Bob Wagner of the American Farmland Trust, has a better chance of being implemented in the Farm Belt, where there's still time to debate the future of development.

In the East, though, the rural landscape is often a mishmash. Because of development pressures, agriculturally zoned areas may feel more residential than rural. But scattered, smaller farms at the urban edge hold potential for preserving land, creating a city-to-country transition zone.

They can also be profitable. Farmers around the country who learn what food shoppers in their areas want - and provide it - are responsible for the renaissance in farmers' markets and farm stands and the popularity of pick-your-own farms and orchards.

"There are a lot of cottage-industry opportunities," says Patty Cantrell, an economist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. In the past, farm policies at every level have promoted large-scale production and yields.

But by intensively growing high-value crops such as tomatoes, strawberries, and artichokes, a farmer can make a decent income on much less land than required for corn or soybeans. "Although farmers may not get that high a price, it's local, they don't have a lot of transaction costs, so it can still be good for their bottom line," Ms. Cantrell says.

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