Farms Under Threat

Published online: Feb 11, 2022 Articles Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

Farming isn’t easy. If you’re reading this publication, this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news to you. There are myriad factors that figure in to the tricky dance of making a farm successful: weather, disease, government over- or under-regulation, consumers’ fickle tastes. The list goes on.

The American Farmland Trust (AFT) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to pushing back against one important, often overlooked trend facing American agriculture: the loss of available farmland. It’s a major issue that doesn’t always offer clean answers.

As an example, AFT estimates that between 2001 and 2016, nearly 70,000 acres of agricultural land in the state of Idaho alone was lost to urban development (most of it in the Magic and Treasure Valleys along the fertile Snake River Plain). Thanks largely to a historically reliable supply of water—even amid drought conditions like those persisting in the West now—the region is a global leader in seed production of dozens of crops, and is at the heart of Idaho’s famous potato industry.

Similar stories are playing out across the country. Over that same 15-year period, the U.S. as a whole lost about 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland—a rate of some 2,000 acres per day. AFT projects that the ownership of as much as 40% of agricultural land in the country will be in transition within the next 15 years. With startup costs rising ever higher, even for those who grew up on the farm, AFT says, “both family farmers and the land they steward are at risk” of disappearing in large swaths.

AFT’s Farms Under Threat initiative is a multi-year initiative to track and understand the threats to farmland in the U.S., and to explore avenues toward conserving as much of it as possible. The initiative utilizes a combination of policy analysis and spatial analysis and mapping.

“Often when people think about farmland loss, they thing about urban sprawl,” says Addie Candib, AFT’s regional director for the Pacific Northwest. “And urban sprawl is a major player. But we’ve also seen a lot of loss to what we cal low-density residential development.”

Low-density residential development occurs, Candib says, when an area is zoned for larger residential lots—say, five or 10 acres. People move into rural areas wanting more space but not involved in production agriculture, and the effects on farmland are eerily similar to those of the more obvious urban sprawl.

“It fragments the agriculture landscape and makes it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to do their jobs,” says Candib. “All that development not only erodes the land available for farming, it makes it more difficult for farmers to farm on the land that is left. Over time that can lead to producers seeing less incentive to invest in their operations because they might not see a future for themselves in the business.”

Farms Under Threat also undertook an extensive policy analysis at the federal, state and local levels, ranking each state in terms of how well they’re doing in implementing policy that slows the loss of farmland. Six policy types were analyzed:

  1. Purchase of agricultural conservation easement programs
  2. Land-use planning
  3. Property tax relief
  4. Agricultural districts
  5. Farm-linking or land-linking programs that match beginning farmers with agricultural landowners
  6. State leasing programs

“The biggest takeaway is that most states are doing something to respond to farmland loss,” says Candib. “But even the states that are doing really well could be doing more.”

While the initiative has highlighted where much of the work needs to be done in statehouses and Congress, AFT is also dedicated to working with and educating farmers and ranchers on their roles and options in keeping American farmland in production. Across the country, the organization offers support and educational materials to growers about such topics as estate planning, conservation easements, and farm- and land-linking programs.

“When it comes to making tough decisions about their land, people can feel really isolated,” says Candib. “It’s not our business to tell a farmer not to sell his land if that’s what makes the most sense for their family. But farmers are the first line of defense when it comes to farmland loss. Their choices do matter to the agricultural system and community.”

With that in mind, the next phase of the program (which is expected to be published in June of this year) will be a predictive analysis looking forward to 2040 and how population growth and migration, climate change and other factors will continue to impact agricultural land.

“The best way to protect farmland is to keep it in production,” Candib says. “And in order to keep it in production, we need to make sure farming is viable for farmers.”

 

To learn more or to become involved in AFT’s efforts to protect American agricultural land, visit www.farmland.org.