Stop the urban sprawl on US farmlands

America is losing prime farmland at a startling rate -- not to foreign purchasers or large multinational corporations, but to shopping centers, highways, airports, and other offshoots of creeping urbanization. Some 3 million acres of farmland a year is disappearing. If the current rate of asphalting is allowed to go unchecked, some states -- Florida, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, for instance -- will lose 100 percent of their best farmland by the year 2000, according to an 11-agency federal task force.

Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland has warned, "In my lifetime, we've paved over the equivalent of all the cropland in Ohio. Before this century is out, we will pave over an area the size of Indiana." The long-range concern is that the loss of prime farmland will lead to greater use of less fertile land for growing the nation's food. In time, this will require farmers to use more diesel fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides, which in turn will push up food prices, feed inflation, and in some instances force the US to turn to foreign imports.

Fortunately, many Americans now recognize the seriousness of the problem. The federal government has joined a number of states and counties in seeking to develop ways to encourage farmers not to turn over their land to developers. The National Agricultural Lands Study, the federal task force mentioned above, will submit a report to President Carter in January outlining the findings and recommendations of a year-and-a-half study of the problem. In December, the NALS will publish a reference guide for states and counties to use in fighting urban sprawl.

Thus far, states have had mixed results in trying to keep farmers from accepting big offers for their land. Massachusetts and Connecticut are the most recent states to try purchasing the development rights to farms. Farmers are paid from $1,000 to $5,000 per acre to retain their land. However, this can be expensive for financially hard-pressed state governments. The two New England states, for instance, paid $10 million to purchase the rights to only 3,500 acres.Massachusetts is focusing primarily on eliciting the support of farmers near retirement.

Some of the most notable progress has been in the Midwest. Wisconsin, for instance, has instituted a state law, implemented by its counties, by which farmers are offered a refund on state income tax liability up to $4,000 a year. To be eligible, a farmer must live in a district the state has classified as subject to severe pressure from developers. Oregon has had some success requiring each of its counties to develop a growth plan, which the state then approves and enforces. The advantage to this approach is that it takes the enforcement pressure off the counties, which tend to be more vulnerable to developers. Counties in Iowa, too, have slowed the loss of farmland by setting aside "corn suitability areas" in which development is prohibited.

More vigorous state and local efforts like these will be needed to stop the gobbling up of prime farmland. The US Soil Conservation Service is in the process of drawing up maps of agricultural lands under siege in 1,301 high-priority counties across the US. This is the kind of assistance the federal government should be providing. Land-use decisions are best left to state and local residents, but Washington can be of immense help in targeting prime farmland and providing technical assistance for helping localities preserve their endangered farms.

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