Disappearing farmland?

There’s no doubt that, because of technological advancements, agricultural production requires less land than ever to produce historically more food, feed, fiber and fuel.

However, some people believe that urban sprawl—the spreading outward of a city and its suburbs to its outskirts to low-density and auto-dependent development on rural land—is removing necessary farmland.

According to the Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit research and education organization, since 1950, an area the size of Texas plus Oklahoma (or almost as large as France plus Great Britain), has been removed from agricultural production in the United States.

What constitutes high-quality farmland?

The American Farmland Trust (AFT) defines it as land most suitable for producing food, feed, forage, fiber and oilseed crops, as well as land used to grow vegetables, grapes and horticultural crops, including fruits, nuts and berries that have unique soil and climatic requirements. Less than one-fifth of U.S. land is high-quality.

AFT is the nation’s largest private, nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to saving farm and ranchland throughout America and is one such critic of urban sprawl. ATF cites that America loses an acre of farmland every minute. The U.S. has lost more than six million acres of farmland since 1997—amounting to the size of Maryland. ATF’s taglines are, “No farms, no food,” and “Saving the land that sustains us.”

There are several government-regulated programs designed to safeguard farmland.

Programs Protecting Farmland (ATF)
  • Agricultural District Programs: special farmer-organized areas where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected
  • Agricultural Conservation Easements: preserve landowners’ right to use their land for farming, ranching and other purposes that do not interfere with or reduce agricultural viability
  • Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) Programs: pay property owners to protect their land from development, known also as purchase of development rights (PDR)
  • Executive Orders: document the importance of agriculture and farmland to their states’ economies, environment and culture
  • Growth Management Laws: control the timing and phasing of urban growth and the types of land use that will be permitted
  • Right-to-Farm Laws: protect farmers and ranchers from nuisance lawsuits
  • Agricultural Protection Zoning: designates land use; a tool of local government
Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program in Ohio (National Resources Conservation Service)
  • Of Ohio’s 26,206,720 acres, there are 11,597,600 acres classified as prime farmland
  • Ohio ranks 39th in the nation in total state land area and fifth in the nation in percent of state land area that is classified as prime farmland
  • Ohio lost more acres of prime farmland during the period 1987 to 1997 than any other state with the exception of Texas
  • Since 1987, Ohio has lost 627,100 acres of farmland, of which 352,600 acres were prime farmland. The average size of an Ohio county is 300,500 acres, during that 10-year span, Ohio lost more than one county’s area of prime farmland
  • In Fiscal Year 2010, $3,949,414 was awarded to five different entities including state or local governments, as well as non-governmental organizations, for purchasing easements using their farmland protection programs
  • $25,986,358 has been provided to such entities in Ohio using protection programs
Some people don’t consider urban sprawl a threat to our national farm and ranchland.

Wendell Cox, a visiting professor at Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris, is one of them. He says that urbanization is exaggerated:

“According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rural, large-lot residential development (nonagricultural) covered 40 percent more land than all of the nation's urbanization in 2000. These parcels represent "scattered single houses on large parcels, often 10 or more acres in size." Since 1980 the increase in this rural residential development has been one-third greater than the land area occupied by all of the urban areas in the nation greater than 1,000,000 in population. If there is a serious threat to agriculture, it is from overzealous regulation that puts farmers at risk.”

A CNN story stated, “The National Center for Policy Analysis report cites figures which show that farmland loss has been moderating since the 1960s, falling from a 6.2 percent decline in farmland per decade in the 1960s to a 2.7 percent decline in the 1990s.”

Whether one considers urban sprawl a threat to agriculture or not, it cannot be denied that our reliance on continued technology improvements will lessen our need for as much land to produce the agricultural products on which we rely, though technology is not a cure-all.

Do you believe that urbanization is affecting agriculture? Have you experienced urban sprawl near your home?

Photo obtained from: cartoonstock.com

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