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Rural Blog: A ‘Quiet crisis’ is confronting agriculture as farmland continues to decrease

(Graphic from Census of Agriculture)

(Graphic from Census of Agriculture)


The amount of U.S. farmland is decreasing at a rapid rate, “with the country losing three acres of farmland every minute,” at a time when experts say more land will be needed to grow enough food to feed the world, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The recently released Census of Agriculture reports that American farmland dropped from 987 million acres in 1982 to 914.5 million acres in 2012, and “The U.S. is losing farmland at a fairly rapid pace to strip malls, parking lots, highways and other forms of development.”

Some say those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust, said the Census of Agriculture “doesn’t track the changes in land use such as losses to development or highlight the crops most likely to be lost,” saying that more than 90 percent of fruits and nearly 80 percent of vegetables “are grown on farmland under pressure from development.” McElwaine told Agri-Pulse, “Since 1982, we’ve converted 24.1 million acres—an area the size of Indiana and Rhode Island combined.”

Every state saw rural land developed from 2007 to 2010, regardless of statewide increases or decreases in farmland, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Agri-Pulse reports, “All 19 states with land-in-farms increases in the 2012 census also developed “significant acres of rural land,” according to the AFT. Russ Shay, director of public policy at the Land Trust Alliance, told Agri-Pulse, “This is a crisis, but it’s a quiet crisis. We lose farmland one farm at a time. We lose primarily smaller farms. People don’t see it.”

Most states have programs to encourage preservation of farmland, but there is no nationwide program. Agri-Pulse reports, “Through May 2013, 27 states had state-level purchase-of-agricultural-conservation-easement programs, protecting almost 2.4 million acres of farmland, according to the AFT Farmland Information Center’s report. . . . The 2014 Farm Bill may offer some hope in helping save the nation’s farmland. On May 1, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new Agricultural Conservation Easements Program, making $366 million in funds available to protect farmland through easements. And more hope lies in a tax-extenders bill currently under consideration in Congress, which increases the incentives for farmers and ranchers to enroll agricultural land in easements.”

The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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