America has lost more than 23 million acres of agricultural land

Apr 30, 2010
by WLJ

“The findings from the 2007 National Resources Inventory (NRI) serve as a stark reminder that our nation’s agricultural land base—and the benefits it supplies—is threatened by poorly planned development,” says Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust (AFT).

The NRI is a survey of the nation’s non-federal lands conducted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in cooperation with Iowa State University since 1982. It documents natural resource conditions and trends, including the conversion of agricultural land to developed uses, and is the most comprehensive natural resource database in the nation.

According to the 2007 NRI, 4,080,300 acres of active agricultural land (crop, pasture, range, and land formerly enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program) were converted to developed uses between 2002 and 2007. This represents an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.

More troubling, the nation has lost 41,324,800 acres of rural land to development between 1982 and 2007—an area about the size of Illinois and New Jersey. Rural land includes active agricultural land, plus forest land and other rural land. Fifty-six percent of the rural land developed, or 23,163,500 acres, is identified as active agricultural land.

In addition, there was a nationwide 13,773,400-acre decline in prime farmland between 1982 and 2007. Prime farmland soils are best suited to produce food and other agricultural crops with the fewest inputs and the least amount of soil erosion.

During the 25-year span of the NRI, every state lost prime farmland. States with the biggest loss of acres included Texas (1.5 million), Ohio (796,000), North Carolina (766,000), California (616,000) and Georgia (566,000).

“Based on the extent of farmland loss during the past 25 years, we urge USDA to dig deeper and undertake a new National Agricultural Lands study,” says Julia Freedgood, managing director of AFT’s Farmland and Communities initiatives. “We need an updated assessment of the amount of agricultural land needed to meet the nation’s future food, feed, fiber and energy needs.”

More information from the NRI, including the long-awaited state-level estimates of changes in land cover/ use, will be made available in coming weeks.

In 2001, NRCS began a switch to an annual or rolling NRI, but the agency did not have adequate resources to implement this change. The more frequent, less complete surveys disappointed external users who had come to rely on the breadth and depth of the “five-year” NRIs. “We applaud NRCS’ renewed commitment to the five-year NRI. This critical information will help states and communities understand what is happening to agricultural land, establish farmland protection goals, and measure progress,” Freedgood concludes. — WLJ