A Future for Farmland

AMERICAN farmland is the world's most productive, but much of it is also the world's most endangered. In rapidly developing states like California, North Carolina, and Florida, hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land get paved or built over each year. By some estimates, 40 million acres have been lost to development since 1970.

On top of that, thousands of acres are lost or damaged through soil erosion.

True, hundreds of millions of acres remain under the plow. But if conservation isn't strengthened now, future generations of Americans may wonder why we didn't act while there was time. Farmland turned to subdivisions and office parks isn't easily recovered. Not only food production is lost, but many environmental and aesthetic benefits as well.

Fortunately, thoughtful lawmakers at the state and federal levels, as well as many private conservation groups, are sharply aware of the challenge and have ideas for meeting it. But they face plenty of resistance, both from business interests bent on development and from politicians wedded to current policies.

What could be done, for a start, is retooling federal farm law to give land conservation a higher priority. If farmers are given more leeway to plant as they choose, relatively free of federal commodity subsidies and acreage restrictions - as appears likely - they should also be given new incentives to enroll land in conservation programs.

The goal of such programs has been erosion prevention. But they could also give farmers a tool for more efficient use of land and taxpayers a better return for their agricultural dollars - especially if a competitive bidding system for enrolling land assures that the acreage essentially being rented by the public contributes to water purification, habitat protection, and other public goals. Such a system faces an uphill battle in Congress.

States and localities have used a variety of methods to keep land in agriculture, including conservation easements that exchange development rights for tax benefits. Thousands of acres are saved through such programs. But when the threat to farmland becomes acute, even more is needed.

Consider the Central Valley of California, which generates $13 billion in agricultural sales each year. It's losing productive land to development at an alarming rate. Population in the valley is projected to triple by the year 2040, reaching 12 million. A report released last week by the American Farmland Trust estimates that could result in a loss of more than 1 million acres of highly productive land.

But the report emphasizes that teamwork on the part of state and local officials, farmers, developers, and others could redirect housing and business construction along more compact patterns and cut the farmland loss by half. Such coordinated efforts may be all that can fend off development tides in areas like central California, parts of Pennsylvania, and northern Illinois. Not just food, but watershed protection and a host of quality-of-life issues are at stake.

Until now, the bargain between American farmers and the American public has been subsidies for stable production. It should shift toward conservation of productive farmland, and food and other benefits - including the thanks of future generations - will follow.

When the loss is acute, as in California's Central Valley, a special kind of teamwork is required.

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