If the U.S. continues to develop farmland at the same rate as from 2001 to 2016, the country will lose another 18 million acres of farmland by 2040, according to a new report from the American Farmland Trust.
That would mean six states would lose 10% of their farmland. More than 20 counties would lose 40% of their farmland. And the change could threaten the future of agriculture in many of those places.
“While new development is necessary as the population grows, this level of conversion — we use more land than needed,” said John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust, in a June 29 webinar about the report.
That’s only one of several possible scenarios the report looked at. If development becomes even more inefficient, with more Americans living on large lots in rural places, more than 24 million acres of farmland could be lost by 2040. But on the other hand, if development is done more efficiently, the acres lost by 2040 could be cut down to about 11 million.
The difference between those possible futures, the report authors said, is land-use planning and policies that support “smart growth.”
From about 2001 to 2016, the U.S. converted more than 11 million acres of farmland to developed land. It seems clear that development will continue, to some extent. But, report authors said, using “smart growth” principles could help minimize the impact to agriculture.
Smart-growth principles include putting new development in cities and older suburbs instead of more rural areas, supporting public transit and pedestrian-friendly development and preserving farmland and open spaces.
“We’re going to have to do a lot more with city councils and public officials to talk about the advancement and how it’s going to affect us as a country moving forward,” said Terry Cosby, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, in the webinar.
Report authors also brought up solar development. Putting solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots and on land that isn’t good agricultural land, like brownfields, could help keep good farmland from being taken out of commission. And in cases where solar panels do go on farmland, allowing grazing for livestock or keeping panels spaced so crops can still be grown there could also help.
“We are all about giving farmers options for diversifying their income and recognizing they have the right to go any path they want. But we want to make sure all the tools and all the information is out there,” Piotti said.
Farming has become more efficient over the years than it used to be. Kip Tom, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and CEO of Tom Farms LLC in Leesburg, Indiana, highlighted how technology has helped farmers make the most out of their farmland.
But, Piotti said, that doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t need to keep farmland in agriculture.
“A lot of people think that’s the answer. They dismiss the need for farmland because they think we’re going to grow ourselves out of this through productivity enhancements,” he said. But there are also a lot of people in some countries who do not have adequate access to food. U.S. exports are important for food access on a global scale. And there could be limits to how efficient farming can become.
“So, it’s wonderful we’re seeing these productivity enhancements,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to think that doesn’t mean we don’t need all our farmland. We do, and it’s only going to be more important.”
In the next two decades, Piotti said, about 40% of U.S. farmers are expected to retire or otherwise transition their land. That leaves a lot of acres that could be either developed, or kept in agriculture through selling or renting to another farmer.
Tools like tax incentives, farm link programs and conservation easements could help make up the difference in a farm’s value for development and value for agricultural use, so that retiring farmers can afford to keep their land in agriculture, and so that new farmers can get access to land.
The full report is available at development2040.farmland.org.
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