What’s the Future of Farmland for Food Production?

The U.S. is at a critical point in food security.

According to the USDA, nearly 50 million residents suffer from food insecurity. Caused by low income, distance from healthy food markets and other factors, food insecurity disproportionately affects single-parent, black and Hispanic/Latino-led households and women living alone.

At the same time, the number of farms, farmers and acres of farmland dropped precipitously during the 20th century, with more than 37 percent of all developed land in the U.S. converted in a generation. Most of this development occurred in the states that produce the food we eat, especially fruits, vegetables and nuts, as well as dairy and poultry, threatening the future of agriculture and domestic food production.

This is not sustainable.

Planning and policy decisions today will have significant implications for our communities, the nation and the world. The farm and ranch land developed between 1982 and 2012 covered an area larger than the states of Indiana and Rhode Island combined. Not only that, our most valuable and productive soils were developed at a disproportionately greater rate.

Food in the Path of Development. Sources: 2012 Census of Agriculture, Volume 1, Chapter 2: State Level Data, Tables 2 and 43 and ERS Urban Influence Codes available at www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/urban-influence-codes.aspx.

As the world population grows and demand for healthy food increases, we need to double down to direct development away from our best agricultural resources to ensure food security, a healthy environment, and a future for the next generation farmers and ranchers on the land.

What will this take?

First we must deepen our understanding of both the qualities of and threats to the nation's farm and ranch lands. We need to know to the extent to which population growth, development patterns and climate change will put our food system at risk. At the same time, we must evaluate what policies are needed to protect farmland — not only its quantity but also its quality — and the farmers and ranchers who produce our food and steward the land.

Then we must act strategically — first in our communities, then our state houses and also through federal policies — to sustain our most valuable and threatened agricultural resources.

Toward this end, American Farmland Trust has launched a new initiative called State of America's Farmland. State of America's Farmland builds on AFT's highly respected and groundbreaking Farming on the Edge maps and reports that raised awareness of the impacts of farmland loss and the need to protect it. This series of studies and maps showed how poorly planned development was consuming America's best farmland in every state in the nation. While out of date, AFT's 2002 version still is widely used and remains the only map of this kind.

The new initiative will use advanced spatial analyses first to illustrate past land use changes and then to project the impacts of different development scenarios and climate change over the next 25 years.

The maps and associated analyses will show us where the most valuable land is and the extent to which it is threatened so that we can make better land use decisions and more strategic investments to ensure future food security and a healthy farm economy. Finally, it will assess policies and practical solutions to address vulnerabilities and create a policy scorecard to highlight successful approaches to making positive change on the ground.

The initiative is guided by an esteemed National Advisory Committee to make sure deliverables are credible and useful to key audiences, especially planners.

Planners involved with the advisory committee include David Rouse, FAICP, APA's managing director of research; Mark Lapping, professor emeritus of the Muskie School of Public Service; and Megan Horst, AICP, of Portland State University. The first prototype maps and scorecard will be vetted this fall.

For more information about the initiative, contact jfreedgood@farmland.org.

About the Author

Julia Freedgood is assistant vice president of programs at American Farmland Trust.

Top image: Blueberries and other fruit are among the crops most endangered by development. Photo by Flickr user liz west (CC BY 2.0).

August 4, 2016

By Julia Freedgood