In Less Than One Generation, We’ve Lost More Than 10 Million Acres of the Best U.S. Farmland

Rural America In These Times

(Editor’s Note: The Amer­i­can Farm­land Trust (AFT), a non-prof­it found­ed in 1980 to pro­tect U.S. farm­land and water sup­plies from encroach­ing devel­op­ment, has just released Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farm­land—the first in a series of reports that will track past, present and future threats to agri­cul­tur­al resources nation­wide. This first report finds that, between 1992 and 2012, over 30 mil­lion acres of farm­land — an area rough­ly equiv­a­lent to the land­mass of New York State — were irre­versibly lost to devel­op­ment. Fur­ther­more, accord­ing to the orga­ni­za­tion’s research, near­ly 11 mil­lion acres of the con­vert­ed farm­land were among the best land for inten­sive food and crop pro­duc­tion.” Below is AFT’s intro­duc­tion and a link to the full report.)

The Unit­ed States is blessed with a remark­ably pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tur­al land­scape. Crop­land, pas­ture­land, range­land, and wood­land sup­port a region­al­ly diverse food and farm­ing sys­tem capa­ble of ensur­ing domes­tic food secu­ri­ty. Agri­cul­tur­al land con­tributes to state and local economies, sup­plies lucra­tive export mar­kets, and bol­sters the nation’s bal­ance of trade. These excep­tion­al nat­ur­al resources sus­tain valu­able wildlife habi­tat, pro­vide flood con­trol and fire sup­pres­sion, scenic views, and resources for hunt­ing and fish­ing. This land also acts as an enor­mous car­bon sink, draw­ing down car­bon from the atmos­phere, which helps com­bat cli­mate change. By 2050, the demands on agri­cul­ture to pro­vide suf­fi­cient food, fiber, and ener­gy are expect­ed to be 50 to 70 per­cent high­er than they are now. Giv­en a lim­it­ed land area in the Unit­ed States and the need to feed and house an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple, it is more impor­tant than ever to pro­tect the agri­cul­tur­al land and nat­ur­al resources need­ed for long-term sustainability. 

This call for action is doc­u­ment­ed and rein­forced by the find­ings of Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farm­land by Amer­i­can Farm­land Trust. The report’s research shows that between 1992 and 2012, almost 31 mil­lion acres of agri­cul­tur­al land were irre­versibly lost to devel­op­ment. That is near­ly dou­ble the amount of con­ver­sion pre­vi­ous­ly doc­u­ment­ed and is equiv­a­lent to los­ing most of Iowa or New York. As alarm­ing, this loss includ­ed almost 11 mil­lion acres of the best land for inten­sive food and crop pro­duc­tion. This is land where the soils, micro-cli­mates, grow­ing sea­sons and water avail­abil­i­ty com­bine to allow inten­sive pro­duc­tion with the fewest envi­ron­men­tal impacts. These pre­cious and irre­place­able resources com­prise less than 17 per­cent of the total land area in the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States. Their con­ver­sion was equiv­a­lent to los­ing most of California’s Cen­tral Val­ley, an agri­cul­tur­al powerhouse. 

Over 20 years ago, AFT released the ground­break­ing report, Farm­ing on the Edge. This com­pelling study and exten­sive map­ping gained glob­al media atten­tion by show­ing how sprawl­ing devel­op­ment con­sumed America’s high­est qual­i­ty farm­land in crit­i­cal regions across the coun­try. Now, new threats to the nation’s agri­cul­tur­al lands cre­ate a press­ing need to update the old analy­ses and assess threats to America’s agri­cul­tur­al land in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Improve­ments in the avail­abil­i­ty of nation­al data and mod­els now enable AFT to more accu­rate­ly track the scale and spa­tial loca­tion of the threat of devel­op­ment to the nation’s agri­cul­tur­al land. They also make it pos­si­ble to assign val­ues to mea­sure the land’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, ver­sa­til­i­ty, and resilience. These advances make it pos­si­ble for AFT not only to exam­ine past con­ver­sion pat­terns but also to fore­cast future devel­op­ment pat­terns like­ly to occur with­out bet­ter land use plan­ning and pol­i­cy intervention. 

These analy­ses under­pin Farms Under Threat, AFT’s mul­ti-year ini­tia­tive to com­plete the most com­pre­hen­sive assess­ment of the loss of U.S. farm­land and ranch­land ever under­tak­en, both past and future. AFT’s goal is to doc­u­ment the threats and offer pol­i­cy solu­tions to ensure the long-term pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion of agri­cul­tur­al land in the Unit­ed States to sus­tain an expand­ing pop­u­la­tion and pro­tect bio­di­ver­si­ty. This first report, Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farm­land, exam­ines the nation’s irre­versible loss of agri­cul­tur­al land to devel­op­ment between 1992 and 2012. A sub­se­quent report will ana­lyze state-lev­el data on past farm­land con­ver­sion and the effec­tive­ness of state-lev­el farm­land pro­tec­tion poli­cies. In a third report, Farms Under Threat will assess a range of future threats, fore­cast poten­tial impacts to 2040 and rec­om­mend effec­tive poli­cies that help con­serve agri­cul­tur­al land. 

AFT is work­ing with Con­ser­va­tion Sci­ence Part­ners (CSP), a non-prof­it con­ser­va­tion orga­ni­za­tion, to ensure these assess­ments are ground­ed in reli­able data and strong sci­ence. This part­ner­ship is sup­port­ed by the USDA’s Nat­ur­al Resources Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice (NRCS). A nation­al Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee pro­vid­ed addi­tion­al guid­ance, and NRCS shared data and reviewed find­ings. Farms Under Threat sig­nif­i­cant­ly advances our under­stand­ing of the pat­terns of past farm­land con­ver­sion and pro­vides infor­ma­tion about the loca­tion, quan­ti­ty, type, and qual­i­ty of the agri­cul­tur­al land lost to devel­op­ment in the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States between 1992 and 2012. These maps and data can serve to improve agri­cul­tur­al land con­ser­va­tion and per­ma­nent pro­tec­tion across the nation. 

(Click here to view Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farm­land in its entire­ty and for infor­ma­tion about Amer­i­ca Farm­land Trust vis­it farm​land​.org.)

This blog’s mis­sion is to pro­vide the pub­lic ser­vice of help­ing make the issues that rur­al Amer­i­ca is grap­pling with part of nation­al discourse.
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