“Data from the National Resources Inventory show that our nation’s farmland is under intense conversion pressure, but also highlight the importance of smart growth and permanent protection,” says Jon Scholl, President of American Farmland Trust (AFT). “Even my home state of Illinois, traditionally one of our strongest farm states, ranked 7thnationwide in the loss of farmland from 2002–2007. Fighting this trend and raising this issue at all levels of government is something I hope I can convince many people to join me in doing.”
The NRI is a survey of the nation’s non-federal lands conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’sNatural Resources Conservation Service in cooperation with Iowa State University since 1982. It documents natural resource conditions and trends, including the conversion of agricultural land to developed uses. One of its striking findings is that more than one out of every three acres of developed land in the United States was developed from 1982 – 2007. AFT’s Farmland Information Center  staff have reviewed the estimates and examined other data sources to understand the significance of the new NRI. Their key findings include:
Every state lost agricultural land to development
- From 1982–2007, each of the 48 contiguous states lost agricultural land (crop, Conservation Reserve Program, pasture and range land) to development. More than 23 million acres of agricultural land were converted to developed land nationwide—an area the size of the state of Indiana.
- The states that developed the largest percentage of their agricultural land include: New Jersey (26.8 percent), Rhode Island (22.5 percent), Massachusetts (18.1 percent), Delaware (14.3 percent), and New Hampshire (13.2 percent).
The United Statesconverted more of its best land
- Prime agricultural land—land best suited to growing food and other agricultural crops with the fewest inputs and least erosion—was converted to developed land at a disproportionately higher rate from 1982–2007: 44 percent more than non-prime agricultural land during the same time period.
Farmland conversion threatens domestic fruit and vegetable production
- California and Florida, two of the three states that lost the most agricultural land, account for 47 percent of the nation’s vegetable and 71 percent of its fruit production based on market value.
A few bright spots
Many of the numbers from the NRI that we’ve analyzed are sobering,” adds Scholl. “But there are a few bright spots.” Some of the positives include a decline in the nationwide rate of farmland loss over the 25-year reporting period, despite a booming housing market during portions of that timeframe. “This overall decline is likely due to smart growth policies that encourage more efficient development,” adds Julia Freedgood, AFT's Managing Director of Farmland Protection. In particular, FIC staff found that:
More efficient development slowed conversion
- From 2002–2007, the national average annual conversion rate was 816,060 acres per year, down 29 percent from the 1992–1997 reporting period—the most intense period of agricultural land conversion.The slowdown occurred despite record numbers of building permits, and housing completions and a peak in spending on private, nonresidential development..
- Data from the American Housing Survey show a drop in the percentage of single-unit houses built on larger lots (1 to 5 acres and lots larger than 5 acres) and an overall decrease in the median lot size outside urban areas.
- While 45 of the 48 contiguous states experienced net increases in population, 13 states developed less than a quarter acre of agricultural land for each new person added from 1982-2007: New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Washington, Georgia, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon.
Purchase of agricultural conservation easement programs (PACE) save land for the future
- Agricultural landowners nationwide have sold permanent easements on more than 2.4 million acres
- Three states protected more than one acrefor every acre developed: Vermont (3.04), Maryland (1.42), and Delaware (1.06). Five more states had protected more than 0.5 acre for each acre lost: Pennsylvania (0.55 acre), New Jersey (0.58 acre), Colorado (0.61 acre), Massachusetts (0.70 acre) and Connecticut (0.71 acre).
“The NRI data show that the threat to our agricultural resources is real,” adds Freedgood. “But we were heartened to find that policies to encourage more efficient development work—slowing farmland loss and buying time. Smart growth coupled with permanent farmland protection programs ensures that in the face of growth agricultural land will be available to produce food for our nation and a growing world population.”
In addition, farm and ranch lands supply multiple community benefits ranging from fiscal stability and economic opportunity to flood prevention and wildlife habitat. Freedgood concludes, “Saving farmland is a vital and timely investment in national security.”