Protecting US cropland from urban sprawl

Concern is mounting that fields producing the United States' agricultural cornucopia are disappearing beneath the relentless spread of concrete and asphalt.

US Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland has warned, "The US is losing 1 million acres of the world's best and flattest agricultural land each year to urban sprawl. In my life-time, 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."

Mr. Bergland was referring to prime farmland. The President's Council on Environmental Quality warns that the total annual loss of US agricultural land is 3 million acres.

In an attempt to get the message across to the consumer, the Washington-based National Association of Counties research foundation explains that "every time you go through the checkout line at the supermarket on a weekly shopping trip, another 60,000 acres of American farmland has disappeared."

Environmentalists cite the fact that current federal policies favor strip mining of coal -- which could end farming on 2.5 million acres of prime farmland in Illinois alone. They point out that federal agencies are responsible for regulating electrical generating plants -- such as the proposed coal-fired plant in Kansas, which will cover 13,500 acres of farmland.

There are calls for urgent government action to protect farmland from expanding cities, industrialization, federal projects such as reservoirs, and from land speculation.

Both the federal and state governments have responded -- prompted by the fact that US agricultural exports should top $38 billion this year and so play an increasingly vital role in the US economy and balance of payments.

A number of states are experimenting with purchasing development rights from individual farmers. Selected Massachusetts and New York farmers have been paid from $1,000 to $5,000 per acre for agreeing to what is in effect agricultural zoning. This system gives farmers fresh capital to invest in their farms -- and reduces their taxes by lowering the assessed value of their land.

Pilot projects to relieve financial pressures on farmers through new zoning systems or tax adjustments are being tried in California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and a number of other states.

But the main federal push to check the loss of farmland has been blocked -- by farmers.

Warning that it would be the first step toward national land-use planning, farmers in February helped defeat a House bill authorizing a study of the loss of farmland.

Farmers want changes in tax laws and federal measures to control inflation. An American Farm Bureau spokesman has explained that "chronic inflation has forced nonagricultural investors to seek ownership of farmland as a hedge against the government's policy of continued inflation and currency debasement."

Farmers, however, do not want direct federal interference with land use.

While federal and state agencies search for ways to protect America's cropland, experts differ over the rate at which competing uses are nibbling away at US farms.

University of Illinois economics and business administration Prof. Julian Simon recently completed a study of the issue and concluded that environmentalists are misleading the public with "scare reports" about disappearing farmland.

Professor Simon points out that while cropland is being lost, it also is being created. His estimates show that irrigation, drainage, and other methods are providing between 1.25 million and 1.7 million acres of new farmland every year in the United States.

Technological advances, he says, enable the farmer to increase crop yields dramatically -- and so it is quite logical to turn less productive land over to other uses such as housing industrial development.

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