Rural America is disappearing - in 5- or 10-acre pieces

For sale: rural America. Price: usually ranging from $300 to $10,000 an acre, depending on location. Available: farmland and timberland in most states. Good for investments, retirement, or second homes.

Warning: The land may be needed for future farming or timber operations.

That warning, according to a new study, is not being heeded.

Rural America is being chopped up and sold in parcels too small for profitable farming or timber production. Unless steps are taken now, the nation's future supply of food, lumber, and paper products will be crimped or their prices will be driven up drastically due to scarcity of production land, a three-year study concludes.

Several points distinguish other related studies from this one by Robert G. Healy, a land economist with the Conservation Foundation and James L. Short, a professor of real estate at San Diego State University.

Most accounts of disappearing farmland have focused on losses at the edge of spreading-out urban areas. Messrs. Healy and Short point out that it is also occurring in relatively isolated rural areas. And while others have studied loss of farmland, this study also looks at loss of timberland and how both are being divided up in ways that make reconversion to production difficult. (For one way forest products companies are harvesting the timber of small landowners, see accompanying story.)

Not all experts agree with the Healy-Short assessment that preventative action is needed now to guard farm and timberland in its current uses.

The annual loss of farmland to nonfarming uses is not occurring fast enough to be a ''national crisis,'' says Michael Brewer, an agricultural economist. And , says the US Department of Agriculture's land branch chief, Robert Boxley, if the demand for farmland in 30 to 50 years is so great, it may be profitable to buy residential land and convert it back to farming.

There is little disagreement, however, over the well-documented trend of Americans moving to rural areas. Rural counties are growing faster than urban ones. Dreams of buying land along some stream, in the mountains, or near a lake, are attracting millions of retirees, long-distance commuters, and others tired of urban life.

Often they buy a number of acres to ''protect'' their privacy and view. In Loudoun County, Va., near Washington, D.C., fertile cropland is in high demand for 10-acre home lots. Land prices in such places have soared. In San Luis Obispo County, Calif., a coastal county where many cattle ranches have given way to housing tracts, farmland that sold for $1,500 an acre 20 years ago now may bring $25,000 an acre after being subdivided into home lots of 5 and 10 acres.

Although most of the land sold in farming areas is not prime farmland, even this marginal land may one day be needed, Healy said in a telephone interview.

Timberland is especially attractive to people leaving urban areas, he says. The problem is that most of these timberland buyers from the cities have little interest in producing timber, Healy points out.

The US Forest Service estimates a doubling of demand for lumber and paper products by the year 2030. And a spokesman for the Southern Forest Institute says even when a small landowner cuts and sells trees, two times out of three the land is not replanted.

Healy says some future problems can be headed off now through use of a variety of creative zoning, group ownership, and other techniques already being tried in some places. He mentions specifically:

1. Cluster zoning: This would require houses built on farm or timberland to be clustered, leaving most of the land available for production.

2. Land trusts: These pool funds to buy large tracts of land, cluster the homes, and keep most of the land for production. One such trust, run by Robert Swann near Great Barrington, Mass., has purchased 100 acres of abandoned farm land. The trust is leasing 1-2 acres home lots for $50 a month and hopes to put the other 70 acres back to agricultural use.

3. Timber cooperatives: These groups would manage fragmented timberlands.

Group efforts in buying and managing land, says Healy, pay off in individuals getting more land at cheaper prices, and in ways that limit cutbacks in farm and timber uses.

Without such measures, he warns, timber and food prices could be jacked up tremendously as land becomes scarcer. And buying back residential lands for timber or farm production could be tremendously costly in the future, he adds.

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