Organization seeks to stop redevelopment of farmland

John Larson, senior vice president of national programs for the American Farmland Trust, addresses a food security forum Oct. 26 in Walla Walla, Wash.

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — The U.S. loses more than 3 acres of farm and ranch land to development each minute, the leader of a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting ag land told a food security conference.

More than 31 million acres — of 350 million total acres of farmland — were converted to other development between 1992 to 2012, including 11 million acres of the best farmland, said John Larson, senior vice president of national programs for American Farmland Trust. He spoke during a food security forum Oct. 26 in Walla Walla, Wash.

“Once it’s lost, it’s lost,” he said.

By 2040, Larson said, the U.S. will have 66 million more people to feed, he said. The industry also faces rising sea levels and more intense rain, floods and droughts, he said.

By the end of the century, roughly 15 percent of the best farmland, or 52.5 million acres, could be lost, Larson said.

Some regions produce little of the food they consume, he said. For example, to get to 50 percent security in food production, in New England would need an additional 1 million acres of farmland.

“Stemming loss is one thing,” Larson. “Redeveloping farmland is a whole other challenge.”

In the meantime, stopping the redevelopment of farmland will require more resources, he said. For every penny states invest to save farmland, they spend about $10 on highways, Larson said.

The nonprofit organization works to protect farmland through tax relief and other incentives, limiting development of farmland and permanently protecting farmland from development.

The AFT recommends:

• Dramatically increasing funding to protect ag land through agricultural conservation easements and agricultural land easements.

• Fully funding USDA efforts to monitor changes to U.S. ag resources, in a proactive approach.

• Enacting a 21st century federal ag land protection strategy.

In early 2019, the organization will release state-specific reports, ranking each state’s efforts to protect farmland. Later in the year, it will develop projections for 2040, using county-level data to determine the greatest threats.

“If we’re disproportionately developing where our best is, we’re doing ourselves and future generations very much a disservice,” Larson said.

State and local programs and farm-friendly land trusts have protected 6.5 million acres across the country, Larson said.

Hannah Clark, Pacific Northwest regional director for AFT, said funding is competitive. The more the industry connects farmland protection options and data with users throughout the supply chain, the better to develop strategies, she said, citing the example of a market deciding to protect ground for its organic carrot production through a land trust.

“How do we be more smart about what land we’re protecting?” she said. “I hope we can protect those keystone properties around the state we just can’t lose, but then the rest of it, we can figure out, how do we really make this thing work?”

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