Fostering Farmland

Balance needed between sprawl and land under plow

From the agriculture-rich Rio Grande Valley in Texas to Atlanta's spreading suburbs, America's farmland is disappearing fast.

From 1982 to 1997, the US population grew by 17 percent, according to the census. Yet "urbanized" land grew by some 47 percent. During that period, six million acres of agricultural land were converted to houses, schools, shopping centers, and roadways – an area the size of Maryland.

According to a new report by a Washington-based conservation group, the American Farmland Trust, every state has seen loss of "prime" acreage (farmland deemed high in soil quality). This trend eats into the supply of locally produced food, so that more and more products have to be trucked farther and farther to consumers.

Texas, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Illinois (in that order) have the worst records on farmland loss. Texas leads the list despite its doubling of private land trusts since 1990.

States need better long-term planning to retain the benefits of keeping a certain portion of land under plow. A major farmland-eater is large-lot home development, with plots as big as 10 acres, accounting for 55 percent of the farmland developed.

At the least, such growth should be directed toward less productive farmland. And filling in empty urban lots with housing would help curb the sprawl of outer suburbs.

Farmland protection initiatives, such as one in the Chicago area, push for regional governments to acquire development rights of farmland or obtain conservation easements on high quality cropland, keeping hungry developers away. But that takes money, which states have little of these days.

Government can also restrict housing growth by refusing to build basic services, such as sewers or roads.

California has turned fallow protected greenbelt land into farms, and offers farmers long-term leases. That vision, which goes beyond a strict "conservation-only" notion, has appeal. Neighbors get fresh produce, and open spaces – designed to curb sprawl – are more productively used.

Another, perhaps even more palatable, solution to the standoff between developers and conservationists is to write better zoning policies, such as those that create smaller land plots and put an emphasis on producing an efficient mix of open space, farmland, and development.

That should help restore the balance between population growth and preserving the nation's farms.

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