Across the nation, large swaths of what once was fertile farmland have been swallowed up by housing and commercial development to keep pace with the growing population and economy.
It’s a common phenomenon as cities push their boundaries outward. But the rate at which farmland is being lost is alarming, according to American Farmland Trust in its new report on farmland conversion.
“Farms Under Threat: The State of America” presents data showing nearly twice as much farmland has been lost as previously believed.
The analysis tracks farmland conversion in the continental U.S. between 1992 and 2012, showing nearly 31 million acres of farmland — equal to all the farmland in Iowa — were lost to development in that 20-year period.
That’s equivalent to losing 175 acres of farmland an hour or 3 acres every minute, AFT points out.
In addition, those farmland conversions included 11 million acres of the best farmland in the country — roughly equivalent to losing most of California’s Central Valley, one of the most productive growing regions in the U.S.
The report is a stark warning that the loss of farmland is serious and will accelerate unless something is done, AFT stated.
“First and foremost, the report really highlights the urgency we have in protecting farmland,” John Larson, AFT senior vice president, told Capital Press.
“We have only a finite number of agricultural acres both in this country and on the planet,” he said.
AFT’s mission has always been to protect the best farming soil and land and to support the farmers who steward the land.
But the report shows “we’re doing a poor job, where we’re losing our most productive, versatile and resilient land to produce food and fiber,” he said.
The best farmland combines high-quality soil, favorable climate and existing farming infrastructure to support intensive crop production. By 2012, that best farmland had dropped to less than 17 percent of the total land area in the continental U.S. and about one-third of all agricultural land.
Anecdotally, AFT thought farmland was being lost but didn’t realize until the analysis how urgent it is to have a national discussion on protecting it, he said.
Partnering with USDA to use data from the National Resources Inventory in harmony with 40 other data bases provided a comprehensive look at how much farmland has been lost and where, he said.
AFT had woefully underestimated the impact, which was nearly double what the organization had previously thought, he said.
Most of the unexpected loss comes from low-density residential development, houses on 1- to 20-acre parcels, which are no longer productive pasture or cropland — just a yard, he said.
“We woefully underestimated how much of that was happening. It highlights the urgency that we need to address the situation now,” he said.
In the time period analyzed, there was a tremendous amount of housing development up to the 2008 recession, he said.
The report “shows glaringly how poorly we have done in developing policy to address that sprawl,” he said.
The report finds agricultural land accounted for 62 percent of new development in the 20-year period, with 30 percent occurring on forestland.
Urban development accounted for 59 percent of farmland conversion, and low-density residential development accounted for 41 percent.
In addition, the numbers show that 43 percent of total developed land in 2012 had been converted from farmland in just that 20-year period between 1992 and 2012.
“AFT is not anti-development, by no stretch of the imagination. We recognize the fact there has to be development. But we have to be more strategic about it in the long term,” he said.
That means identifying the best farmlands and coming up with a strategy and approach to development, he said.
Agriculture accounts for $1 trillion of the $18.7 trillion U.S. gross domestic product. It stimulates another $1.27 trillion in economic activity.
It also protects wildlife and helps reduce air and water pollution. Farmland sequesters carbon, holds more water in drought, suppresses fire and provides for flood control. It also provides scenic views, open space and recreation, the organization said.
Feeding more than 9 billion people in the world by 2050 will require intensive production on no more acres than exist today, Larson said.
Land for agricultural use, including federal land for grazing, accounts for 55 percent of total land in the continental U.S. There aren’t enough resources to protect every acre of farmland, but there needs to be better use of land for development, he said.
Federal policy is needed to protect the best farmland with the confidence that it’s going to remain in agricultural use. More than 350 million acres of agricultural land is going to move to different ownership of some kind over the next 20 years. There needs to be policy in place to make sure it transitions to the next generation of farmers, he said.
On another front, past policy requiring agencies to mitigate farmland loss has been overlooked in exercising eminent domain, he said.
On the local front, there needs to be policy and planning to in-fill development back into suburban and urban areas instead of allowing sprawl to go unabated, he said.
“Let’s not be allowing a one-house-on-20-acre approach,” he said.
There has to be a comprehensive and coordinated approach to protecting farmland, he said.
The report is the first phase in AFT’s three-part initiative to stem the loss.
“This is the part we’re all going ‘Oh, my God,’” he said.
The report will be followed later this year by a separate report that analyzes losses by state and evaluates the effectiveness of state farmland protection policies.
More than 20 states have no formal farmland protection program, he said.
AFT will then assess a range of future threats, forecast potential impacts to 2040 at a county level and recommend policies at all levels.