USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which previously published the National Resources Inventory (NRI) every five years, has announced that it will begin conducting the nationwide land survey annually in order to provide more timely information.
Preliminary data from the 2001 Annual NRI show that the United States continues to lose more than a million acres of agricultural land to development each year.
"The rapid rates of farmland loss consistently reported by USDA provide a disturbing snapshot of the diminishment of our nation's precious natural resources," said American Farmland Trust President Ralph Grossi, a rancher and longtime farm policy activist.
"What the numbers alone can't convey, however, is the strain that this trend places on communities through the disappearance of locally grown foods, wildlife habitat, green open spaces and increased taxes needed to support new development.
"It doesn't have to be this way," Grossi says. "If Congress stays true to the conservation spending plan set fourth in the 2002 farm bill – including funding increases for backlogged programs like the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Conservation Security Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – we can gain ground in the fight to save our nation's farms and ranches."
The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 marked a dramatic turning point in farm policy, with the dedication of $17 billion over six years for farm conservation programs. This spending was backed by strong public support: a nationwide voter poll released by American Farmland Trust in 2001 showed that nearly 85 percent of voters think that farmers receiving federal aid should be required to apply conservation practices, such as the protection of water quality, wetlands and wildlife habitat.
The poll also found that 53 percent of voters want to see more federal dollars spent to keep farmland from being developed.
The full House and Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed separate Agriculture Department spending bills for 2004, which dealt a blow to the nation's farm and ranch lands by funding farm conservation programs at levels far short of those authorized in the farm bill.
Under the proposed bills, Congress could cut an additional 10 percent off farm conservation funds, which comprise only 9 percent of total agriculture and nutrition spending.
"The miniscule savings sought from these cuts make no sense when compared to the disproportionate harm they'll do to the nation's farm and ranch lands in terms of missed stewardship opportunities," said Grossi.
He added that in addition to overall cuts in farm conservation spending, no consensus has yet been reached on the technical assistance disputes that have forced shifts between conservation programs and led to further reductions in the amount of money going directly to farmers to improve land stewardship.
USDA's explanation of the transition to an annual Natural Resources Inventory is available at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/land/nri01/