July 14, 2022
Anyone who lives where housing subdivisions or warehouses pop up like dandelions doesn’t need a study to realize Indiana is forfeiting prime farmland to development. If you don’t live near subdivisions or industrial development yet, perhaps perusing a new report issued by American Farmland Trust will help you grasp why some Hoosiers believe it’s time Indiana became serious about protecting farmland. “Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future” is AFT’s latest update on loss of farmland.
Even before that report was released, statistics compiled by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service pointed to a long-term trend toward loss of farmland.
Related: Development takes toll on farmland
“We track acres in each crop, but we also track total acres in farmland in each Census of Agriculture,” says Nathaniel Warenski, Indiana state statistician for NASS. The census is conducted every five years.
In 1950, reported acreage in farms was 19,658,577, with farmland making up 84.8% of Indiana’s total land area. By 1982, there was 16,294,268 acres in farming, or 70.9% of all Indiana land. By 2002, total acres in farms was 15,058,670. Based on the last census in 2017, the total was 14,969,996. NASS no longer reports percent of total land area. It also doesn’t directly track land lost to development.
Farmland protection efforts
Gary Steinhardt, an Indiana Prairie Farmer Honorary Master Farmer, has found success at almost every endeavor he’s attempted during his long career as a Purdue University Extension soil scientist. By his own acknowledgment, he didn’t totally succeed at one early assignment.
Steinhardt was tasked with helping coordinate efforts to promote preservation of prime farmland, beginning in the 1970s. While Purdue Extension staff statewide assisted then and today where counties implement planning and zoning, efforts are more successful in some areas than others.
Experts with AFT explain there is far more to encouraging protection of prime farmland than just planning and zoning. The organization has tracked these efforts nationwide for several decades. While some states, particularly in the Northeast, recognize the need for protection and implement proactive measures, many do not.
AFT documented the disappearance of prime farmland and its potential impact on the future in “Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future,” released in June. Authors of the report note that from 2001 through 2016, 2,000 acres of farmland and/or ranchland were lost to or compromised by development each day.
The report contends that if the trend continues unimpeded, 18.4 million acres could be converted from 2016 to 2040, an area nearly the size of South Carolina. About one-third would be converted to commercial development or housing of high or moderate density. About two-thirds would wind up in low-density housing, either large-lot subdivisions or scattered housing in rural areas.
If the rate of development escalates, land converted from 2016 to 2040 could total 24.4 million acres. Yet if policymakers and land-use planners adopt policies that encourage compact development instead, 13.5 million acres of current farmland and ranchland could be saved, AFT says.
Where Indiana ranks
To see how individual states have responded to the threat of lost farmland, authors of the AFT report assessed six possible state policy response areas and developed a scorecard. The rankings shown in the table below are pulled from AFT’s “State of the States” report within the larger report.
These policies include: purchase of conservation easements (PACE) by states; land-use policies like planning and zoning that stabilize the land base; property tax relief for ag landowners; ag district programs that encourage landowners to establish special areas to support agriculture, often aided by limits on annexation and/or tax incentives; Farm Link or Land Link programs that connect people who want to farm with landowners who want their land to stay in agriculture; and state leasing programs that make state-owned land available for agriculture.
Out of all factors combined, when the scores were tallied, Indiana ranked 44th in taking steps to protect farmland. Of the six factors ranked individually, Indiana does not have a state program for land easement purchases, ag districts or Farm Link.
Refer to the table below to see which states rank among the top five nationally in all six categories, plus overall. Also note how Indiana compares to neighboring states and two other Midwest states, Iowa and Minnesota.
AFT cooperated with Conservation Science Partners and the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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