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Farmland losing to urban sprawl

A stone's throw from California's Disneyland, just down the street from the sprawling Anaheim Convention Center, and surrounded by commercial development of every stripe, is about a 10-acre patch of farmland planted in vegetables and strawberries.

Almost everyone attending the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences was amazed that in the midst of all the urban sprawl that patch of farmland had survived.

Well, not for long, it turns out. So the story goes, the Japanese family that has been farming it for years while hotels, motels, restaurants, tee-shirt shops, gas stations, etc., sprang up to capitalize on the hordes of Disneyland tourists, is finally succumbing to the megabucks offers and selling for a reported $60 million. Strawberries and veggies will be replaced with a Disney water park.

It's a story that's being repeated in varying degree around the country as farmland, pastureland, and open spaces adjacent to metropolitan areas become more valuable for homes, businesses, and industries and fall to the developers' bulldozers.

While the trend in the Mid-South has been more pronounced in larger urban areas such as Memphis, Little Rock, or Jackson, many smaller towns such as Oxford, Tupelo, Starkville, and Canton in Mississippi; Jonesboro in Arkansas; Jackson and Dyersburg in Tennessee; and many others in the five-state area are being confronted with urban and suburban growing pains that gobble up nearby farmland and open spaces for commercial and residential development.

Rapid increases in the development of farmland have been a concern for many years and a number of efforts have been launched to preserve and protect farmland and open spaces in the path of urban growth.

A survey late last year, commissioned by Smart Growth America, a nationwide coalition of some 60 public interest groups, showed an overwhelming 78 percent of Americans favoring policies to curb urban sprawl. More than 80 percent said there should be more cooperation among local governments in management of growth, creating zones for open space and farmland, and tax incentives for such programs.

"We've definitely touched a nerve," says Don Chen, the Washington, D.C.-based director of the coalition. "All the evidence shows that Americans support smarter growth, and our elected officials had better start paying attention."

National organizations such as the American Farmland Trust and the Land Trust Alliance have been in the forefront of efforts to protect open spaces and farmland and in promoting legislation to offer financial incentives and/or tax relief through measures such as agricultural conservation easements.

"Americans view farms and open space as well worth protecting," says Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust. "Protecting farmland and planning for growth go hand-in-hand. Farmland and open space are irreplaceable, and America needs to protect them."

While most of the land trusts are in the northeast states and California, there was a 118 percent increase in the Southern states in the 10-year period ending 1998.

While the development pace has been relentless, there has been some good news recently: The USDA says its estimates of farmland lost to development between 1992 and 1997 were in error by about 30 percent. The total is now pegged at 11.2 million acres rather than almost 16 million, with yearly average losses of 2.2 million acres instead of 3.2 million. Faulty computer software was blamed. Factoring in the corrections, the development pace still was significantly higher than the average 1.4 million acres per year during the 1982-96 period.

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