In this three-part series, Inman News examines America’s shrinking farm real estate. Urbanites tired of crammed city living, along with population growth and sprawling development, are a few trends affecting farmland. Some farmers are finding themselves on the edge of developed areas, whereas they used to be located in much more remote regions. See Part 1: Urbanites nab more country real estate and Part 2: Farmers take a stand to preserve land.)

U.S. farmland is shrinking, the number of farms is shrinking, and sprawl is devouring rural land at a rapid rate in some areas. Suburbs and rural fringe areas beyond suburbs, referred to as exurbs, are generally growing faster than urban areas.

Big cars, big commutes and big houses on big lots are a popular lifestyle choice for many Americans. As the housing boom drives real estate prices higher in many urban and suburban areas, some prospective home buyers find their version of the American dream in new homes built on or near farmland.

Farming has survived despite population growth and residential sprawl – experts say there is still plenty of land to support the nation’s agricultural industry – though continuing rural development poses challenges for farmers.

John Miranowski, an economics professor at Iowa State University, said U.S. residents are enjoying an affluent economy and they are demanding more living space, and that puts pressure on land at the edge of urban boundaries.

“Sprawl is a local problem, not a national problem. Thus, it is not having a major impact on the productive farmland base but it may be having an impact on the local farming base,” he said.

Iowa, a state known for its farming, is “suffering from a lack of growth for the most part,” he said. Sprawl is not a big problem in most parts of the state, he said, though it is evident around a few cities.

In some areas, residents are buying “farmettes” or “ranchettes,” which are small, subdivided farm or ranch plots that are generally used for residential purposes. “This is a form of sprawl – a form of loss of productive farmland – but we’re not in a country where we’ve got a real shortage of farmland,” said Miranowski, a former official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Land in the eastern part of the state has increased, in part, because some Chicago residents are buying properties in the countryside, he said, and rural development is driven by a demand for space, an affluent economy, and a desire for recreational and outdoor amenities.

While there is a growth in the share of small-lot farms and large-lot farms, mid-size farms, meanwhile, are in some cases being subdivided into smaller parcels and in other cases combining with larger-sized farms, Miranowski said.

According to the Farmland Information Center, a national clearinghouse for farmland protection information, about 11.4 million acres of rural land were converted to developed uses from 1992-97, including about 2.42 million acres of prime agricultural land. And about 1.23 million acres of ag land convert to developed uses each year, on average. The information center is a partnership between the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust, a federally authorized organization that promotes farmland preservation.

Jill Schwartz a spokeswoman for American Farmland Trust, said, “There is no doubt that development is having a huge impact on agricultural land and that’s because so much of the nation’s high-quality agricultural land is actually located close to cities,” she said. “In the 1990s the nation lost farm and ranch land 50 percent faster than it did in the 80s.” While development of rural land has escalated, so have ag-land preservation efforts, she said.

American Farmland Trust is not opposed to development of farmland, Schwartz said, though it is working to steer development away from prime farmland.

“Eighty-six percent of the fruits and vegetables that people consume in this country are grown at the urban edge,” she said. “The food that we all eat comes from these very threatened farm and ranch lands.”

Texas lost about 332,000 acres of prime farmland to development from 1992-97, which was the highest loss among states, according to National Resources Inventory statistics. Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois were also among the states that lost the most prime farmland in that period, Schwartz said.

Despite this loss of prime farmland, total farmed acreage in Texas has remained roughly even for the past decade, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“It’s not that we have that much more development (today),” said Schwartz. “We’re not building that many more homes — It is that everybody who is building a home wants a larger piece of land, and that’s where all of this farmland is being eaten up really quickly.”

In the 1980s and 1990s in particular, she added, the amount of land per person for new housing almost doubled. “To us, that’s really telling. People want a little bigger piece of land a little farther from the city. If you had the same amount of development on smaller pieces of land or land closer to the cities, you wouldn’t have the same problem.”

Schwartz said there are many examples of successful farmland preservation efforts around the country, and these programs typically require the support of government agencies. “As a very basic start, ideally you need to have a county or township with some sort of comprehensive plan that lays out these (protection) programs,” she said.

There are number of incentives for farmers to protect their land, such as eminent domain protection and tax breaks, she said. There are programs in which farmers agree not to sell their land in exchange for payment, and developers can purchase these forfeited development rights to build on other land, preferably in urbanized areas.

As of 2002, an estimated 1.14 acres of agricultural land was protected by a popular type of state and local land protection measure, called agricultural conservation easements. That number grew to 1.31 million in 2003 and 1.36 million as of June 2005, according to the Farmland Information Center. Pennsylvania topped the list with 295,447 acres protected by these programs, followed by Maryland with 281,545 protected acres and Colorado with 226,549 acres. By comparison, California had 24,000 protected acres as of June 2005.

Federal agencies also offer support farmland-protection programs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this month the reallocation of about $12 million to support the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which assists with farmland protection in 22 states.

Some states have seen a quick decline in total farmland over the past decade. From 1994 to 2004, the total acreage of farmed land in Arizona plummeted 34.1 percent, from 35.4 million acres to 26.4 million acres. Housing construction, sales and prices in that state, meanwhile, have been soaring. And in California, which has also experienced a major surge in real estate sales and prices in the past decade, the total land in farms has dropped about 12 percent from 1994 to 2004.

Schwartz said there are farmers who want to sell their land to developers, and that is always their choice. “For farmers who want to stay in farming, we’re trying to help them do that. I don’t think saving your farm or staying in farming is for everyone. There is certainly a ton of land in this country. The question for us is, ‘What’s the good land – the land that has really good soils?’ Our goal is to save the really high-quality land and leave the more marginal land for development.”

From 1985 to 2004 the total amount of U.S. farmland shrunk about 8.1 percent while the number of farms dropped about 8.5 percent, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The average farm size, meanwhile, is about the same as it was 20 years ago. In 1985 the average farm size was 441 acres. The average farm size rose to about 471 acres in 1995 before dipping again, reaching 443 acres in 2004.

Between 1960 and 2000, urbanized population grew by about 80 percent while the urbanized land area grew by about 130 percent, said A. Chris Nelson, associate director for the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech University. Also, according to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and Census Bureau data, about 40 percent of the 19 million new housing units built from 1985-2001 were on lots of one acre or larger, and the nation loses more than 3,000 square miles of land each year to residential development over one acre, Nelson noted.

Nelson, who co-authored a report on efforts to contain sprawl into rural areas, also said that low-density development tends to be more costly to maintain than higher density development because of the required services to sustain this form of far-flung development.

In his report, “The Effectiveness of Urban Containment Regimes in Reducing Exurban Sprawl,” Nelson and co-author Thomas W. Sanchez found that among 35 metropolitan areas studied, only three saw a decrease in the development of land at the rural fringe of suburbia from 1990-2000: Miami, Portland and New Orleans. Those cities that experienced the most exurban growth in that time: Las Vegas, Houston, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, Orlando and Los Angeles, in that order.

Those metro areas with natural growth containment, such as land constraints, or strong policy restrictions on growth were generally the most successful at reducing exurban sprawl and increasing the density of an area’s urban population, according to the study.

Al Sokolow, a retired University of California, Davis, political science professor who has researched farmland protection issues, said that residential development in rural and farm areas is more pronounced in the Midwest, and this form of development “has a severe impact on continuing agricultural practices in those areas.” Consumer preferences and weak governmental controls are enablers for this kind of sprawl, he said.

“It makes it very difficult for the continuing farm operations to operate efficiently and effectively when surrounded by residential neighbors, even in scattered, large-lot home sites,” Sokolow said.

“The conventional wisdom in the old days was that folks who moved out to the countryside — that’s OK — they are still rural residents and raise a few horses, grow a few vegetables or whatever. The current thinking is that those people are as much of a threat to agricultural operations as, let’s say, plopping a very large subdivision next to your farm,” he added.

Modern agricultural operations lack the quaint, pastoral charm that some rural transplants might expect, Sokolow said. “It’s a highly industrialized, high-impact type of industry.” There are chemicals, dust, and noise associated with many agricultural operations, all of which can provoke a negative reaction from neighboring non-farmers. An increasing residential population in traditional farming areas can lead farmers to downsize, move, or shutdown operations and sell their land.

Farmers may not like suburban sprawl, but on the other hand they often don’t want to give up the right to sell their property as development pushes toward them, Sokolow said. “This is an ongoing issue with the agricultural community.” And those residents who choose to live in a bucolic setting, surrounded by farmland can eventually end up strangling that same farmland — like “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” he said.

So far, ample land has remained for farming operations, Sokolow said, so farmers and are not endangered species.

“We’re not at the point where we don’t have the land to feed ourselves. If farming is kicked out of a community by a pattern of urbanization, it moves elsewhere,” he said.


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