Faces of Food Systems Planning: Dean Severson

Severson.jpg.JPGDean Severson is Principal Agricultural and Rural Planning Analyst for Lancaster County Planning Commission in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Laura An, a planning intern at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and a graduate student of planning at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted this interview in October 2015.

What is your first and last name? Dean Severson

What is your current position? Principal, Agricultural and Rural planning analyst, Lancaster County Planning Commission in Pennsylvania

How long have you held this position? 17 years.

What do you enjoy about your work? I like working one-on-one with municipalities.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Because Pennsylvania is a home-rule state, the county does not implement many plans. It can be frustrating because the planning commission can only advise and recommend, but municipalities, and specifically local officials are responsible for implementation. My priorities or interests aren’t necessarily local officials priorities and interests.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work, and where does that fit in with the rest of the work that you do? I focus mainly on traditional land use planning, rural areas, agriculture, and tangentially food systems planning. My primary focus is on agriculture as land use, and then secondly as an economic development issue. I work with municipalities to coordinate their land use planning decisions, help limit amount of development, and direct it to appropriate places, so that agriculture can thrive with little or no interference.

It’s interesting that in my experience, a lot of local planning boards in rural areas are made up of farmers or other people who have some relationship to agriculture or working in the food industry (such as dairy).

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? No, because that’s too narrow. As a land use/community planner, I look at a variety of issues. I don’t really specialize on food system planning, but food systems are definitely a component of land use planning.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? Making sure there are connections between agricultural areas and market areas in urban areas and other smaller communities in Lancaster County. Most of Lancaster’s food production is exported out of the county for further value-added processing. But lately I have noticed growth in smaller-scale more direct-to-consumer production. The challenge is making sure there’s an atmosphere where small producers can thrive when competing with large farms for land, provide marketing opportunities for them to get product into local hands. Zoning regulations and farmland programs are more designed for larger farms; we haven’t made the transition to better accommodate or serve smaller farms yet.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? It’s broadened, seeing all different components of it. First food system planning seemed to be narrowly focused or defined (a food desert). But now I see the big picture – that it encompasses everything in from production to consumer. What’s the planner’s role in that? Making sure there are opportunities for small producers to enter into the market; transportation/infrastructure connections to make sure product can make its way to consumers. We need to look at the importance of agriculture in economic development efforts. And we need to also consider niche agriculture (smaller scale), because those producers have specific needs.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? Not any one person, but municipal officials who helped put things in perspective. Planners can think that planning issues are most important, but we are probably further down on the list – there are lots of other things that occupy municipal officials’ time and energy. Also – Farmers.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning-related work? Look at the entire spectrum from production to consumption- a failure of a lot of planners is to focus on just the consumption end of food systems. True, we must be aware of the needs of consumers. But we also must determine what limits or prevents producers from expanding their businesses and bringing their products to the market.

I use the same skills for food system planning as I do for land use planning in general: listening with an open mind to hear new ideas.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Planning school doesn’t always prepare you for the day-to-day things. It often promotes this idea that you’ll be creating a grand master plan and that everyone will immediately get on board with it, but the reality is a lot of progress is made incrementally and much rests on developing a working relationship with your planning clients or local officials, and then eventually being able to accomplish things jointly with them over time.


Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.

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