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Thursday
Apr292010

U.S. farmland being eaten away by development, govt report shows

Farmland in Vermont with rural development in the backdrop. Credit, Muffet.Large areas of farmland in the United States are being converted to development, according to the numbers in a new report put out the by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 2007 Natural Resources Inventory - just released - shows that 4,080,300 acres of active agricultural land was lost to development between 2002 and 2007 - an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.

Furthermore, the U.S. lost 41,324,800 acres of rural land to development between 1982 and 2007. Of these rural lands, 23,163,500 acres were in active agriculture - lands lost to development also included forests and other rural areas.

One could argue that these numbers are somewhat small relative to the total rural land in the United States - over 1.4 billion acres. However, on an absolute basis, the numbers are pretty staggering - the total rural land converted to development between 1982 and 2007 is roughly equal to the size of Illinois and New Jersey.

Perhaps most worrying, 60% of the agricultural land lost from 1982-2007 was prime farmland - the designation given to the lands with the best quality soils and highest productive capacity for growing crops.

The collapse of the U.S. housing market highlights the absurdity of this development pattern.  The overdevelopment of suburban sprawl on top of some of the highest quality farmland in the world helped fuel a collapse in home prices in many of these same areas.

“The findings from the 2007 National Resources Inventory serve as a stark reminder that our nation’s agricultural land base—and the benefits it supplies—is threatened by poorly planned development,” says Jon Scholl, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT).

"Based on the extent of farmland loss during the past 25 years we urge USDA to dig deeper and undertake a new National Agricultural Lands study,” says Julia Freedgood, Managing Director of AFT’s Farmland and Communities initiatives.

“We need an updated assessment of the amount of agricultural land needed to meet the nation’s future food, feed, fiber and energy needs.”

Some more disconcerting numbers from the report:

  • States with the biggest loss of prime farmland acreage from 1985-2007 included: Texas (1.5 million), Ohio (796,000), North Carolina (766,000), California (616,000) and Georgia (566,000).
  • State that lost the greatest percentage of their prime included: Arizona (36 percent), Nevada (34 percent), New Mexico (33 percent), New Jersey (30 percent) and Massachusetts (24 percent).

--by Rob Goldstein

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