A new American Farmland Trust report, “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” finds that millions of acres of America’s agricultural land were developed or converted to uses that threaten farming between 2001 and 2016.

The report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of policies that respond to the development threats to farmland and ranchland, showing that every state can do more to protect their irreplaceable agricultural resources.

The State of the States” report shows the extent, location, and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted in each state using the newest data and the most cutting-edge methods. The Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard analyzes six programs and policies that are key to securing a sufficient and suitable base of agricultural land in each state and highlights states’ efforts to retain agricultural land for future generations. It offers a breakthrough tool for accelerating state efforts to make sure farmland is available to produce food, support jobs and the economy, provide essential environmental services, and help mitigate and buffer the impacts of climate change.

Agricultural lands are threatened

Between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of the nation’s agricultural land was lost or fragmented, equal to all the land in the U.S used to produce fruits, vegetables and nuts in 2017. Roughly 4.4 million of these acres were “Nationally Significant”— our best land for food and crop production.

The U.S. holds the world’s greatest concentration of fertile soil suited for growing food and other crops. However, only 39% the agricultural land in the lower 48 states is defined by AFT as “Nationally Significant” land, which can reliably produce abundant yields for many decades to come, if farmed sustainably.

American Farmland TrustTop 12 states with most threatened agricultural land

Farmland is at severe risk in the South, where agricultural land is being urbanized and converted to low-density residential land use at a rapid pace.  Six of the top twelve states with the most threatened agricultural land are in the South, according to the new report.

Importantly, states in this region of the country have often enacted fewer public policies to protect agricultural land.  States in the South that were identified as having a high degree of threat and low policy response include Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Threatened by urbanization

Between 2001 and 2016, 4 million acres were lost to the expansion of urban areas.

What’s more, the Farms Under Threat research captures a new class of land use: low-density residential, or LDR. LDR land use occurs where the average housing density is above the level where agriculture is typically viable. It includes large-lot subdivisions, open agricultural land that is adjacent to or surrounded by existing development, and areas where individual houses or housing clusters are spread out along rural roads.

Low-density residential land use threatens working farms and ranches by fragmenting the landscape and disrupting agricultural economies. In just fifteen years, nearly 7 million acres of farmland and ranchland were converted to LDR land use.

Low-density residential land use has flown below the radar, even though it is just as much of a threat to farmland—now and in the future. Indeed, the report shows that LDR paves the way for further urbanization. Agricultural land in LDR areas was 23 times more likely to be converted to UHD than other agricultural land. In other words, once land has been converted to low-density residential land use, new development rapidly occurs on the remaining farmland and ranchland in the area.

What can states do?

Combined, states have permanently protected more than 3 million acres, secured more than 40 million acres with restrictive covenants and zoning, and reduced the tax burden on more than 475 million acres helping them remain viable for agriculture. The report examines six approaches that help protect land and maintain thriving agricultural communities – PACE programs, land use planning policies to manage development, agricultural districts programs that protect and encourage commercial agriculture, property tax relief for agricultural land, state leasing programs making state-owned land available to farmers and ranchers, and FarmLink programs that connect farmers with available land.

Committed state action is an essential response to the loss of farmland and ranchland. While municipal and county governments are often in the best position to assess local conditions and address local needs, their resources often are limited, and the decisions in neighboring communities can have an impact on entire regions. State (and federal) goals and funding are needed to strengthen local efforts.

Source: Indiana Prairie Farmer