Farms across the U.S. are being transformed for development and commercial use, causing farmland to decrease by more than 4 million acres between 2002 and 2007.
According to data recently released by the National Resource Conservation Service, U.S. farmland is diminishing at an alarming rate.
The 2007 National Resources Inventory, which tracks and documents the nation’s natural resources conditions and trends, shows that 4,080,300 acres of active farmland (roughly the same size as Massachusetts) were transformed for development and commercial use between 2002 and 2007. This number was added to the more than 41 million acres of farmland, forests and other rural land that has been developed since the NRI was first conducted in 1982.
Although the NRI looks only at land cover and land use when collecting its data, the 2007 Agriculture Census showed that the number of small farms increased by 1 percent during this time period (2002 to 2007).
“It’s encouraging to see the growth in small farms,” says Jennifer Dempsey, program director for the Farmland Information Center, a partner of the NRCS. “To have more small farms coming on line means those businesses can grow and we can restore some of the middle agriculture.”
Prime farmland, which can include forested land but contains soil and water suitable for producing crop, has seen a major loss according to the NRI Summary Report, with a 13,773,400-acre decline from 1982 to 2007. Every state lost prime farmland during this time period. States losing the biggest acreage were Texas (1.5 million acres), Ohio (796,000 acres), North Carolina (766,000 acres), California (616,000 acres) and Georgia (566,000 acres). More specific data regarding state-level estimates will be released to the public in the coming weeks, according to American Farmland Trust.
Preserving remaining farmland is a top priority for the USDA.
“One of the many elements being examined in the assessment is the capability and limitations of the nation’s natural resources, such as farmland, to meet current and future demands for food, fiber and fuel,” USDA spokesperson Caleb Weaver says.
According to Dempsey, looking at land’s agriculture viability is one way states can protect their farmland and natural resources.
“I look at it as the growth of businesses nationwide,” she says. “If the land is being farmed and is generating income, it is less vulnerable to development.”
The USDA is implementing a number of resource-protection and conservation-assistance programs, including the new Transition Incentive Program. This program was launched last week under the 2008 Farm Bill to help retiring farm owners or operators transition their land to new or disadvantaged farmers.
On the local level, citizens concerned about the decrease of farmland nationwide can get involved with community planning to make sure development plans support the efforts of local agriculture, says Dempsey. She also recommends supporting local farms to help them generate income.