America's Vanishing Farmland
Where’s it gone? You may be living, shopping, or driving where crops and livestock were once raised.
According to recently released data,
every state in the country lost agricultural land to development in the 25-year period between 1982 and 2007. In all, the loss amounted to more than 23 million acres, an area the size of Indiana.
The numbers come from an American Farmland Trust analysis of the U.S Department of Agriculture’s 2007 National Resources Inventory. The study is the latest USDA statistical survey of land use and natural resource conditions and trends on non-Federal lands.
The report reveals that Mid-South states saw plenty of development on what was formerly agricultural land. From 1987 to 1992, Tennessee lost 791,000 acres, Mississippi just shy of 335,000, and Arkansas 296,200.
The biggest losers, in terms of total agricultural acres developed, were Texas with 2.9 million, California with 1.77 million, and Florida with 1.55 million. Percentage wise, however, even Texas’ loss of 1.7 percent of its total surface area wasn’t as big as Tennessee’s 2.9 percent. Yet, neither came close to the states that developed the largest percentage of their agricultural land: New Jersey at just under 27 percent, Rhode Island at 22.5 percent, and Massachusetts at 18.1 percent.
Why Should We Care?
Development increases impervious land areas that don’t allow the absorption of rainwater. Streets, parking lots, and buildings (large and small) impede the replenishing of groundwater and increase flooding. Development also reduces habitat for wildlife, even more so than the use of formerly wild areas for farming.
The more obvious consequence is simply that, with population on the increase, we’ll need even more ranch and farmland to feed the planet. Also, consider that two of the three states showing the largest losses in agricultural acres — California and Florida — account for a whopping 47 percent of the nation’s vegetables and 71 percent of its fruit production based on market value.
There was some good news in the report, showing that development has slowed in recent years. Regionally, that was true in Mississippi and Arkansas, but not Tennessee, which showed a slight increase in the last five years of the survey as opposed to the previous five.
Another troubling figure found in the USDA data is the average age among farmers. In Tennessee in 2007, 60 percent of farmers were 55 or older, while in Mississippi and Arkansas that number was 62 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
To see more data from the USDA 2007 National Resources Inventory, go to www.farmlandinfo.org.