The 'quiet crisis' confronting agriculture

By Ann Tracy Mueller

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 - American agriculture is threatened by a ticking time bomb, with the country losing three acres of farmland every minute.

With over 9 billion mouths expected to be fed around the globe by 2050, one might think that U.S. leaders are focused like a laser on protecting as much productive farmland as possible. But according to the USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture, the U.S. is losing farmland at a fairly rapid pace to strip malls, parking lots, highways and other forms of development.

In 1982, a previous census showed almost 987 million acres in farms. The number dwindled to 922 million by 2007 and to 914.5 million acres by 2012.

Lets Talk Food

Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust (AFT), says that the Census of Agriculture doesn't tell the whole story, as it doesn't track the changes in land use such as losses to development or highlight the crops most likely to be lost. More than 90 percent of our fruits and nearly 80 percent of our vegetables are grown on farmland under pressure from development.

“In recent years, we've developed more than 50 acres of agricultural land every hour,” McElwaine said. “Since 1982, we've converted 24.1 million acres - an area the size of Indiana and Rhode Island combined.”

Estimates from the National Resources Inventory (NRI) conducted by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), show that, regardless of a statewide increase or decrease in land in farms, every state saw rural land developed from 2007 to 2010.

In fact, all 19 states with land-in-farms increases in the 2012 census also developed “significant acres of rural land,” according to the AFT.

There are efforts to protect farmland, though - through preservation programs and planning - but it's not happening as part of any nationwide initiative.

In mid-April, Pennsylvania's Agricultural Land Preservation Board safeguarded 2,778 acres on 28 farms in 13 counties through its farmland preservation program. Since Pennsylvania's nationally renowned preservation program began in 1988, state, county and local programs have preserved nearly a half million acres for agricultural production. The commonwealth's Agriculture Secretary George Greig said, “The best agricultural land is often the best land for development, but our farmland preservation program ensures prime soils stay in farming.”

Through May 2013, 27 states had state-level purchase-of-agricultural-conservation-easement programs (PACE), protecting almost 2.4 million acres of farmland, according to the AFT Farmland Information Center's (FIC) report, “Status of State PACE Programs.”

 

But aren't these protection programs just a drop in a proverbial farmland bucket? And why isn't everyone more upset about the loss of farmland?

“This is a crisis, but it's a quiet crisis,” says Russ Shay, director of public policy at the Land Trust Alliance.

“We lose farmland one farm at a time,” Shay says. “We lose primarily smaller farms. People don't see it.”

So that begs another question: How can states with no preservation programs stem the loss of agricultural land?

Jennifer Dempsey, the FIC's director, says community planning and smart growth initiatives are important tools. In Indiana, a guide to local planning is designed to ensure “that agriculture remains a strong component of [a] county's economy.” In California, AFT is working to save 120,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley though a “smart growth plan.”

As for preservation programs, the 2014 Farm Bill may offer some hope in helping save the nation's farmland. On May 1, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new Agricultural Conservation Easements Program (ACEP), making $366 million in funds available to protect farmland through easements.

And more hope lies in a tax extenders bill currently under consideration in Congress, which increases the incentives for farmers and ranchers to enroll agricultural land in easements.

As an example, consider a family cattle ranch in Montana, clearing over $50,000 per year in income, with an easement worth $1 million. Currently, landowners who donate the conservation easements on their land may take a take a tax break of up to 30 percent per year for up to five years - in this case a maximum of $90,000 in deductions, much less than the value of the easement. Under the enhanced tax deductions, the landowner could take $50,000 in deductions per year for up to 16 years, for a total of $800,000.

Shay says this change could make donating an easement much more attractive for many ranchers and suggests it may be the only way to achieve preservation in states without preservation plans.

In an opinion piece on Agri-Pulse, Land Trust Alliance President Rand Wentworth said, “There are very few issues before us today that are black and white.  But given the demographic projections of the U.S. population growth, what is crystal clear is that the time to increase the pace, quality and permanence of land conservation is now.”

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