Concerns about a loss of farmland to increasing urban sprawl are nothing new to American farmers and rural stakeholders. Those worries now have hard numbers to back them up with research from the American Farmland Trust showing the U.S. has lost more than 11 million of acres of farmland to development in the last two decades. That’s the equivalent of losing almost half of Indiana just since George W. Bush was President.
The report, Farms Under Threat: The State of the States, contains a ton of useful and relevant information. Using spatial mapping analyses of agricultural land conversion, AFT says it gained unprecedented insights into the status and fate of American farmland. Their findings and maps of agricultural land at the state, county, and even sub-county levels show that between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland were converted to urban and highly developed land use (4.1 million acres) or low-density residential land use (nearly 7 million acres).
At the same time, we also know that the number of farms in the U.S. has been shrinking. USDA data shows that between 2011 and 2018, the number of farms in the U.S. declined by almost -5%. Some of this stems from consolidation with a lot of small- to mid-sized farmers moved to sell or lease their land to larger operations. Urban development has gobbled up some of that land, too. With the fallout from Covid-19, there are concerns that these trends will only be exacerbated.
Consolidation and urbanization could be also be accelerated by the impending transfer of more than 370 million acres of farmland as an aging farmer population retires, according to AFT. Including nonoperator landlords, seniors aged 65 and older own more than 40% of the agricultural land in the United States. More than four times as many farmers and ranchers are age 65 and older as are under age 35, and the percentage of senior producers at or above retirement age keeps creeping up. In most states, seniors comprise at least a third of the farming population. Regionally, the trend is most pronounced across southern states: in Texas, more than 155,000 of the state’s 408,500 producers are over age 65, versus fewer than 25,000 who are under 35.
One issue that the report highlights is what Julia Freedgood, a senior adviser with AFT and a co-author of the report, calls an “insidious pattern of fragmentation in rural communities,” which she says is kind of like sprawl but less concentrated. “What you’ll see is one house per maybe five or 10 acres in an area, and maybe they’re having some horses or some llamas or something like that,” Freedgood explains. “It looks kind of like a farm if you’re in outer space and looking down for spatial mapping, but in terms of a farm economy, you suddenly have a different kind of an enterprise happening.”
Ultimately, the infrastructure that supports local agriculture gets pushed out and replaced. “So, it’s not exactly sprawl as we think of it, as urban sprawl with malls and everything around the city, but it still can have a detrimental impact on the agricultural community and economy,” she says. As the suburban economy grows up around these new developments, land values often rise beyond what a local farmer can afford.
Freedgood urges people start to take seriously some of the things she and others have been warning about for decades: the consolidation in the agricultural industry — and in cropland, in particular. As she points out, the pandemic has shown the fault lines created by this pattern. “It’s not that we have a supply problem right now. What we have is…a supply chain problem.” The best way to ensure our food security to make sure that we’re protecting farmland in our states and in our communities, she insists, “so that we have this kind of resiliency so that we’re ready for everything that comes, whether it’s a pandemic or whether it’s climate change.”
Farms Under Threat is AFT’s multi-year initiative to document the status of, and threats to, U.S. farmland and ranchland while also offering policy solutions to save that land. The group aims to double the amount of permanently protected farmland by 2040 and drastically reduce the rate that farmland is converted to other uses—by 50% by 2030 and 75% by 2040. And to do it all with a priority focus on America’s best agricultural land—the most productive, versatile, and resilient. The group this year established the National Agricultural Land Network, a nationwide network of land trusts and government entities focused on protecting agricultural lands, to help meet the goals. It will also continue to advocate for stronger state and federal land protection policies. (Sources: AFT, The World, DTN)