Are we paying enough attention to protecting farmland?

We are blessed with an abundance of farmland in this country, with about 895 million acres available. But if you drive around cities like Des Moines, Kansas City, or Oklahoma City—which are surrounded by a great deal of farm and ranch land—you’ll notice that there is no longer much of a barrier between the cities and the farms.

That’s because there is a lot of sprawl that’s eating up some of the most productive farmland in the world. People are building homes, roads and buildings out into the countryside, covering up many areas that were once farms and ranches.

That may or may not be a problem if you are a landowner headed into retirement. One of my close friends owned land west of Des Moines, Iowa, and tried to keep her land in farming for dozens of years. But after decades of attending city council meetings, battling over eminent domain, fighting in the state legislature and even trying to convince the Department of Transportation to take less land for highway exits, she finally sold out. One of her farms sold for development at over $80,000 an acre.

But as we think more broadly about our ability to produce food and protect our national security interests in this country, some advocates say it’s time to pay more attention to productive land that’s being lost and start thinking differently about planning.

“We can’t keep developing open fields just because it’s easy or convenient,” American Farmland Trust President and CEO John Piotti said on a webinar that I recently hosted for Agri-Pulse. “Once a farm is chopped up or paved over, it is gone forever.”

AFT said between 2001 and 2016, the nation lost 2,000 acres of farmland per day, a total of about 11 million acres. If that trend continues, AFT projects the United States will lose an area nearly the size of South Carolina—about 18.4 million acres, between 2016 and 2040.

“Of this total, 6.2 million acres will be converted to urban and highly developed land uses such as commercial buildings, industrial sites, and moderate to-high-density residential development,” the report says. “The remainder, 12.2 million acres, will be converted to low-density residential areas, which range from large-lot subdivisions to rural areas with a proliferation of scattered houses.”

Another danger is “rural sprawl,” driven by increased housing prices in metro areas and the trend toward remote work. “If this happens, 24.4 million acres of farmland and ranchland could be paved over, fragmented, or compromised by 2040,” the report said.

AFT’s new “Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future” says smart, compact growth is the key to arresting the loss of prime ag land.

“If policymakers and land-use planners across the country embrace more compact development, it would slash conversion and keep up to 13.5 million acres of irreplaceable farmland and ranchland from being turned into big-box stores, sprawling subdivisions, and large-lot rural residences,” the report says.

AFT’s policy recommendations, which are tailored in the report to local, state and federal agencies, are to “embrace smart-growth principles to improve land-use planning; permanently protect agricultural land to secure a supply of land in perpetuity; advance smart solar to boost both renewable energy and farm viability, and support farmland access to create opportunities for a new generation of farmers, particularly historically marginalized producers.”

The report says, “smart-growth principles favor locating new development in cities and older suburbs rather than fringe areas; supporting public transit and pedestrian-friendly development; encouraging mixed-use development; and preserving farmland, open space, and environmental resources.”

“Where possible, we should be putting solar on rooftops, over parking lots, and on brownfields and marginal land,” Piotti said. “And when solar does go on good farmland, we should be encouraging agrivoltaics (or dual use solar), promoting soil health measures under the arrays, and requiring strong decommissioning standards.”

The report sketches out three scenarios for the near future: Business as Usual, Runaway Sprawl, and Better Built Cities.

Under the first, 18.4 million acres of farmland is converted to more developed uses between 2016 and 2040. “Six states will convert over 10% of their agricultural land in this scenario, and more than 20 counties will convert over 40% percent of their remaining farmland,” the report says. “Perhaps most concerning, nearly half of the conversion will occur on the nation’s most productive, versatile, and resilient farmland and ranchland, or nationally significant land.”

Under the “sprawl” scenario, “over 1 million acres of agricultural land will be lost or compromised every year, amounting to 24.4 million acres between 2016 and 2040. In this scenario, over 12 million acres of nationally significant land will be converted—a devastating blow to the nation’s best land.”

Under the final scenario, “agricultural land conversion could be cut by 7.5 million acres compared to Business as Usual … At the same time, conversion of nationally significant land would decrease by 42%, taking the pressure off 3.7 million acres of our best land for growing healthy food.”

Highlighting two issues much in the news lately, the report discussed both the impact of the war in Ukraine and the continuing issue of water scarcity.

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“In a world already battered by COVID-19 and climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is severely disrupting food, energy, and financial markets,” the report says. “Russia and Ukraine together provide around 30% of the world’s wheat and barley, one-fifth of its corn, and over half of its sunflower oil. The war will further erode food security for hundreds of millions of people around the globe unless other countries can fill the gap.”

Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.,