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High-quality farmland going to urban development

Food production is increasingly in the path of development. But growth is not the problem, waste is. These days some of the best farmland is going the way of development, says the American Farmland Trust.

From 1992-1997, the U.S. lost 1.2 million acres of farmland each year. Much of that land is our most fertile and productive land. The most fertile land made the conversion to development at a rate 30 percent faster than that of non-prime rural land during the same period.

AFT says the problem is wasteful land use, not growth itself. During the five years of the study, the U.S. population grew by 17 percent, while urbanized land grew by 47 percent. Over the past 20 years, the acreage per person for new housing almost doubled. Since 1994, 10-plus acre housing lots have accounted for 55 percent of the land developed.

Every state is losing some of its best farmland to the trends that push farmers closer to the edge of urban areas. The trend isn't leaving rural areas alone either. Some of the best farmland in rural areas of states such as North Carolina is being gobbled up as well.

North Carolina lost 168,300 acres of prime farmland from 1992-1997, putting the state in the notorious Top 5. North Carolina maintained the percentage of loss from an earlier five-year period, but other states mushroomed in the amount of farmland they're losing.

For example, Texas, which leads the nation in loss of total farmland, lost 66,560 acres each year during the five-year period. Georgia, which was second, lost 42,440 acres each year during the five-year period. In Alabama, the loss was lower, at 22,760 acres, but the increase in the loss was a whopping 127 percent greater than it was in 1987-1992, AFT said.

“From 1992-1997 we converted to developed use more than 6 million acres of agricultural land, an area the size of Maryland,” the AFT says.

Not surprisingly, food production and development are intersecting. According to the AFT, some 86 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables and 63 percent of dairy products are produced in urban-influenced areas.

How can the trend be stopped or slowed?

Communities, states and the federal government are working to protect farmland by effective planning and smart growth that directs development to less-productive land; permanently saving farms through publicly funded easement programs; supporting farm practices that enhance the environmental benefits of farmland; and expanding efforts to increase the profitability of urban-edge farming.


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