Farmland is being consumed by expanding urban areas

Farmland is being consumed by expanding urban areas
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The statistics are alarming. Almost 31 million acres of farmland irreversibly lost between 1992 and 2012. Three acres gone every minute. An area the size of Iowa no longer available to produce food, fiber and biofuel. Land that we are going to need in the future, gone forever.

As the 2018 farm bill faces an uncertain future, American Farmland Trust’s recent report, “Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland,” reveals that we are losing farmland at nearly twice the rate previously documented.

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What’s happening? Our farmland and ranch-land are being consumed by expanding urban areas and low-density development in rural areas. It’s particularly alarming that 41 percent of the loss is due to the building of individual homes on excessively large lots — that’s over 12 million acres lost in such a wasteful manner.

 

Taken together, all this ill-planned and unchecked development uproots farmers, pushes food production to more marginal lands, and hampers the ability of remaining farmers to do what they do productively.

The farm bill gives us a chance to stem the loss. An essential first step is to restore funding of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to $500 million annually, as it was in 2017. The bill that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayGOP motions to subpoena whistleblower Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing Walden retirement adds to GOP election woes MORE (R-Texas) brought to the House floor does that.  It also boosts mandatory funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), while adding provisions to help project partners measure beneficial outcomes. This will enable RCPP to model how other federal programs can more effectively achieve conservation goals.

Beyond this, it maintains level funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which is vital because we can only advance conservation to the level needed if we are to be successful attracting and supporting the next generation that works the land.

It’s unclear whether Congress will come together on a farm bill this year. But this much is clear: the next farm bill must include these provisions—as they are critical for farming’s future. And farming’s future is society’s future.

The United States is blessed with more arable land than any other nation on earth — arguably our greatest resource. Perhaps because of this abundance, we take our land for granted. But that can’t continue, not if we hope to leave our grandchildren a livable planet.

Farmland grows our food, supports our rural communities, and contributes a trillion dollars a year to our economy. Well-managed farmland protects wildlife, controls floods, suppresses fires, and protects our water and wildlife.  It also provides open space and recreation that many Americans cherish. Beyond that, farmland offers a unique tool to combat climate change, a way to sequester carbon through natural means that improve our soils. We simply can’t hope to reduce atmospheric carbon aggressively enough unless we actively manage our farmland to pull more carbon from the air.

Our future depends on having enough farmland to both feed us and to restore our planet. And this requires a holistic vision of the future: one that acknowledges farmland as irreplaceable infrastructure we cannot afford to lose; that sees farming practices that retain topsoil and rebuild soil health as necessary if that land is going to serve us in perpetuity; and that views farmers as the stewards of that land, worthy of our fervent support — because, at heart, what these farmers do is for all of us.  

Some elements within this comprehensive strategy are closely intertwined. For example, one of the best ways to support the next generation of farmers is by protecting more farms with agricultural conservation easements. Farmland protected with an easement sells at its “farmland value,” as opposed to “development value.” This makes the land more affordable for incoming farmers — and in this way overcomes the biggest barrier preventing more young farmers from entering the field.

We will never save farmland at the scale needed without a comprehensive package of forward-looking policies. And we are far from there today. But improving key conservation programs as the Conaway bill proposes is a step in the right direction.  If we don’t take this step forward, we fall backward, losing even more farmland. Losing it fast — at three acres a minute.

John Piotti is the president and CEO of American Farmland Trust.