WASHINGTON The United States is losing two acres of mostly prime farmland every
minute to development, the fastest such decline in the country's history, a new
study has found.
That loss has been on the edge of the outer suburbs, where some of the country's
best fruit farms are being replaced by houses on large lots, linked by new roads,
highways and malls, the study, by the American
Farmland Trust, said.
Sprawl, not development itself, is the problem, the report said.
"We are consuming more land per person than at any time, in the most wasteful
way," said Ralph Grossi, president of the trust, a nonprofit organization.
The National Association of Homebuilders supported that conclusion.
"We completely agree that 10-acre lots are an inappropriate use of land,"
said Clayton Traylor, senior vice president of the association. "We both want
higher-density development and smart growth."
Using census data as well as Agriculture Department information about crops
and soil, the study found that more than half of the lost farmland is being carved
into 10-acre lots.
Arkansas, New York, Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi top the list of states
that have lost the greatest percentage of their best farmland in the last five
The problem has been growing for two decades. While the nation's population
grew 17 percent from 1982 to 1997, the amount of land turned into urban areas
increased 47 percent.
Yet the new outer suburban developments have not eased the pressure for affordable
housing, the trust and the homebuilders association said.
"There is a parallel between the growing concern about losing farmland and
the growing divide between shelter for the rich and poor in the United States,"
said Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University.
Keith Collins, the chief economist for the Agriculture Department, said that
the loss of farmland has been a concern for years because it destroys open spaces
and local food production.
"It's a quality-of-life issue," Mr. Collins said. "Properly managed farms
protect the urban watersheds, provide the visual amenity of open space and protect
the farmers who bring their locally grown fruits and vegetables to farmers markets."
The Agriculture Department and the new farm bill have tried to protect farms
and pastureland, including a program that provides about $100 million in matching
funds every year to state and local groups and governments that buy easements
for farmland to protect it permanently from urban development.
But a vast majority of the $180 billion farm bill underwrites subsidies for
farmers to grow cotton, rice, wheat, corn and soybeans.
The publication of the Farmland Trust report encouraged environmentalists
who have been arguing that spending federal money to protect vulnerable farmland
makes more sense than subsidizing crops.
"Urban sprawl is the toughest problem we face with its energy cost,
pollution cost for the air and water and for the loss suffered by farmers and
wildlife," said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group. "Why not pay
to keep farmland from becoming mansions and malls rather than give farmers money
to raise cotton and rice that we don't need."
The report recommends more easements for farms and strong national standards
for development. Vermont, California and Pennsylvania are cited as three states
that have balanced development with farmland preservation.
While agreeing on the scope of the problem of sprawling development, representatives
of the building industry disagree that the solution is more federal money for
preserving farmland. They want higher-density development in outer suburban areas
that want to attract only wealthier homeowners.
"Our point is there is a pervasive shortage of housing that has to be every
bit a priority as the protection of farmland," said Mr. Traylor of the homebuilders
association. "A big part of the game we're fighting is the `not here' syndrome.
We need affordable housing while using up the least amount of undeveloped territory."
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