US can keep feeding much of world -- if it stops eating its farmland

By the year 2000, American farmers will be able to satisfy steadily rising US and world food demand -- but only ifm immediate federal, state, and local action is taken to protect farmland.

That "only if" is the one certainty emerging from the National Agricultural Lands Study just released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Council of Environmental Quality.

As seems standard with any agricultural issue, uncertainties surround the question of how much farmland will be needed. The answer depends on the weather over the next 20 years, both in the United States and abroad. It also depends on whether new technology will continue to increase yields dramatically, on whether gasohol takes off, on how much farmland disappears into strip mining for coal, and many other factors.

Based on its own research and figures from a wide range of other studies and experts, the agricultural lands study concludes that the volume of demand for US farm products will increase by 60 to 85 percent between 1980 and 2000. The study estimates that "between 84 and 143 million additional acres would need to be planted in principal crops by 2000 to meet the projected volume of demand at constant real prices."

Adding this extra crop acreage is "technically possible," according to the lands study. But it would mean reversing a well-established trend.

Recently the US has been cutting into its rural land base at the rate of 3 million acres each year. One million acres annually comes from the irreplaceable stock of 346 million acres of "prime farmland." According to the USDA's Soil Conservation Service's latest report. "Each year, more than 800,000 acres of our best farmland become housing tracts, highways, airports, industrial sites, parking lots. Nearly 200,000 acres are covered by water for man-made lakes and reservoirs."

Instead of such steady reductions, the lands study calls for adding 127 million acres of potential cropland to the present 413 million acres over the next 20 years. This would mean turning an annual 3 million acre loss into an average gain of more than 6 million acres a year.

Covering prime farmland with concrete, houses, and shopping centers cost the country 23.2 million acres from 1967 to 1975. The trend continues with no sign of letting up. The pressure for conversion comes from a variety of social and economic forces. National population studies show that young families are abandoning cities for suburbs and rural areas in increasing numbers. New households are sprouting at the rate of 1.5 million a year, with 40 percent of this building in the 1970s taking place in rural areas.

The study says that in 1967-77 the greatest loss of farmland -- $: $S percent or more -- occurred in the New England states (except Maine), Maryland, West Virginia, Florida, New Mexico, and Utah. Losing from 5 to 9.9 percent were New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, North Dakota, Montana, Washington, and California.

One immediate result of the new taste for rural living is that farmers come under increasing pressure to quit farming. Not only can they cash in on inflated land prices, but, warns the lands study: "Tensions between farming and nonfarming people in rural areas with growing population are prompted by vandalism to crops and farm machinery, ordinances against normal farming practices, lawsuits against farmers over crop-dusting, and a decline in the political power of farmers. The increased demands by new residents for costly social services and infrastructural improvement create additional conflict in agricultural communities.

"The resulting property tax increases fall heavily on the original residents as the community tries to meet the increased fiscal and public-service burdens that accompany rural development. Agricultural equipment and supply stores lose business and may close if the number of farmers declines substantially. Ordinances against normal farm practices may hinder profitable farming. Some farmers may turn to high-intensity crop production, foresaking the long-term conservation of their land for short-term profits. These farmers doubt the future of farming in that area and 'mine' soil with high-intensity crops, then sell the land for nonagricultural uses."

The lands study singles out the federal programs as another major factor. A variety of federal programs are identified as encouraging conversion of farmland to other uses. The study cites the case of Harris County, Texas, where "federal Housing and Urban Development programs contributed to the conversion of about 13 ,000 acres of mostly prime agricultural land in 1978, about 11,300 acres in 1979 , and about 4,700 acres in 1980."

Any solution, the report states, requires a well-coordinated federal effort to replace "about 90 programs that reduce the availability of land for agricultural production" -- programs currently run by these federal agencies: Department of Housing and Urban Development, Farmers Home Adminsitration, Economic Development Administration, Veterans Administration, Water Power Resources Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Tennessee Valley Authority, Department of Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency.

Even with a crash program at federal, state, and local levels to protect farmland, the report predicts sharply rising food prices, "perhaps as much as double the 1980 price level by 2000."

Most high-yield, easily farmed land is being harvested already. Whatever new land is added will involve higher production costs, "since cropland now coming into cultivation is more costly to till, is subject to more crop failures and yield variability, and produces poorer crops on average than land already in cultivation."

The lands study reviews a number of state and local attempts to protect farmland. But for an overall solution, it calls for presidential or congressional leadership to make the nation as a whole aware of the vital importance of preserving farmland

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