Our Food Supply in Jeopardy
When we set the dinner table, we do not look at our plate and contemplate the effects of growth on our supply of broccoli, potatoes or oranges. But America is losing its high-quality farmland--to scattershot suburban sprawl.
An American Farmland Trust (AFT) report reveals that poorly planned development destroys 50 acres of prime U.S. farmland every hour of every day. Nearly every city is spreading out onto farmland important to the food production system. This trend, if not reversed, will show up eventually at mealtime.
The top 20 endangered regions in the report probably produced some of the food on our table. The green beans and squash may have been trucked from central California (the #1 most endangered region), the turkey from Maryland (#2), the cheese from Wisconsin (#3), the potatoes from Idaho (#13) or the oranges from Florida (#6). High-quality farmland in urbanizing counties produces 70 percent of America's fruits and vegetables and at least half our dairy products.
By urbanizing some of its best farmland, America is limiting future options to deal with social, economic, food security and environmental problems. When we lose farm and ranch lands, we give up scenic open space, wildlife habitat, healthy watersheds and wetlands. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is farmland--not residential development--that most contributes to local government's tax base. In a recent study of Frederick County, MD., AFT found that residential property cost local government $1.14 in services for every tax dollar collected, resulting in a net deficit. Farmland and open space required only 53 cents in services for every tax dollar paid, thereby subsidizing residential land.
The good news is that we have tools to change this dynamic. States have taken the lead in stemming farmland loss through the voluntary purchase of development rights (PDRs). These programs appeal to conservationists and landowners because they protect the landowner's property rights and the resource base. Local governments are embracing PDRs because they safeguard communities from unsustainable tax burdens.
Since 1977, 18 states and dozens of local governments have invested more than $800 million to protect nearly one-half million acres of important farmland. The 1996 Farm Bill established a $35 million Farmland Protection Program to support state and local efforts. This federal program, unanimously endorsed by the National Governor's Association, has helped protect nearly 77,000 acres of farmland on more than 200 farms.
Much of the work to save farmland begins with grassroots action. Many successes in farmland preservation will start at zoning board meetings or planning commissions where initial decisions to convert farmland are made. Voters also can support initiatives that create farmland protection programs. Together we can keep America growing.
--Ralph Grossi, President of American Farmland TrustSince August 1985, Ralph E. Grossi has served as president of American Farmland Trust, a national nonprofit organization working to stop the loss of productive farmland and to promote farming practices that lead to a healthy environment.
Grossi, a third-generation Marin County, Calif., farmer, graduated from California Polytechnic State University in 1971 and since then has been managing partner of Marindale Ranch, a family partnership raising black angus specialty beef. He holds a number of national awards in his field, including the 1976 Outstanding Young Farmer and Rancher of the California Farm Bureau Federation and the 1985 Feinstone Environmental Award.
Used with permission from Common Ground, (published bimonthly as a service to the conservation community by The Conservation Fund), 940 Stillwater Lane, Earlysville, VA 22936
Return to the Index of Synapse 43, Spring 1998