From Farmland to Golf Course and Back Again

Tim Evanson, Flickr

From Washington to Michigan to Virginia, golf courses are going under. And they're undergoing a strange conversion—sometimes a poetic one—back to their previous form: farmland.

It’s not widely reported outside of golf circles, but the fact is: In almost every way, golf is a declining sport. The National Golf Foundation declared that, despite a not-insignificant rise in the number of female golfers, the total number of golfers in the US is down by a whopping 400,000 in the last year. Dick’s Sporting Goods sales are holding relatively steady except for golf (and hunting, but mostly golf); retail sales in the company’s Golf Galaxy stores were down more than 10 percent last year.

Most importantly for our purposes, more golf courses have closed than opened every year since 2006, meaning that the total number of golf courses has been decreasing for eight years. Hundreds of courses are closing every year. (The theories why this is happening range from the lack of a superstar, a la Tiger Woods, to the declining state of the American middle class.)

This leaves big chunks of fairly desirable land, carefully tended and often with water and electrical hookups, sitting unused, all around the country. And a curious thing has begun to happen: That land is being turned into farmland. This is not necessarily a given; farmland has been disappearing from both the US and Canada over the past decade, with arable land typically gobbled up by developers. The golf course conversions are an unexpected bright spot.

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Some examples: James and Stephanie Lemon, of West Virginia, converted their failing nine-hole golf course into a working organic produce and egg farm in 2010. Dennis DeYoung is turning a Michigan golf course into a hog farm. And John Taylor is converting a frequently flooded golf course just outside Seattle back to the purpose it served before the course was built: a dairy farm.

Economically, this is a tricky decision; farmland is not a spectacular earner. (A 2015 study found that a high-productivity grain farm in Illinois would return about $244 per acre.) Converting the golf courses to farmland largely depends on zoning. For example, Taylor’s Washington conversion was valued at around $4.5 million as a residential plot, but will sell for more like $720,000 as agricultural land. And occasionally that causes fighting; one proposed conversion in Alexandria, Virginia, is being fought by neighbors who fear that a nearby farm will lower their home prices.

In the long term, we hope, people will see the advantages of converting golf courses to farmland. Many of these courses, being small, will be snapped up by family farmers who may practice modern techniques, like the Lemon family’s organic farm in West Virginia. Golf course conversion could be a great way to get new farmers some starter land.

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From Farmland to Golf Course and Back Again