What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Iowa’s farmland from the disruptions of development? - American Farmland Trust

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May 29th, 2020

What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Iowa’s farmland from the disruptions of development?

American Farmland Trust’s new report demonstrates how developing farmland puts food security, the environment and our way of life in jeopardy.  

5/20/2020, WASHINGTON, DC — Millions of acres of America’s agricultural land were developed or converted to uses that threaten farming between 2001 and 2016, according to Farms Under Threat: The State of the States,” a new report by American Farmland TrustThe report’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard is the first-ever state-by-state analysis of policies that respond to the development threats to farmland and ranchland, showing that every state can, and must, do more to protect their irreplaceable agricultural resources.  

The State of the States report shows the extent, location, and quality of each state’s agricultural land and tracks how much of it has been converted in each state using the newest data and the most cutting-edge methods. The Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard analyzes six programs and policies that are key to securing a sufficient and suitable base of agricultural land in each state and highlights states’ efforts to retain agricultural land for future generationsIt offers a breakthrough tool for accelerating state efforts to make sure farmland is available to produce food, support jobs and the economy, provide essential environmental services, and help mitigate and buffer the impacts of climate change. 

The “Farms Under Threat” analysis finds that the growth of Iowa’s cities is resulting in the development of some of the most productive agricultural land in the state. 

The Midwest region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin holds some of the richest, most productive agricultural lands in the country. These six states are part of the 12 Midwest states in the U.S. that each generate over $10 billion in agricultural cash receipts. From Wisconsin’s dairy industry to Illinois’ and Iowa’s corn and soybean fields—all of the Midwest states hold invaluable assets to America’s agriculture. Yet these six states in particular are among the most threatened for conversion of agriculture land to nonagricultural uses.  

Iowa’s farms are under threat, with its best land succumbing to development.  

From 2001 to 2016, 114,200 acres of agricultural land were developed or compromisedthat’s over 7,000 acres annually. Using AFT’s PVR index, the measurement of productivity, versatility and resiliency of land, 83% of Iowa’s agriculture land is considered “Nationally Significant,” or land best suited for growing food and crops. 

“Iowa holds some of the most fertile soil in the nationIowa is the 39th highest out of the 48 conterminous states of most threatened for farmland loss,” said Kris Reynolds, AFT’s Midwest regional director. “AFT is committed to ensuring that farmers get the technical and financial assistance that they need to be more sustainable. Conservation on the land will continue to be the forefront of our work in the Midwest.”   

Iowa is known for its landscape of rolling plains and cornfields. The state holds some of the most highly productive soils and needs to keep them producing as agriculture accounts for 30% of the economy in the Hawkeye state.  

The hot spot for development was the dramatic expansion around Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. However, the threat is more than just urban sprawl. Iowa’s agricultural land is disproportionately threatened by a new, more insidious kind of development discovered by AFT through this research, termed low-density residential, or LDR, development.  

LDR is insidious because it is not always immediately visible to communities and policy makers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response. In Iowa, LDR is 66 times more likely to be converted to urban and highly developed land use than other agricultural land. 

LDR land use compromises opportunities for farming and ranching, making it difficult for farmers to get into their fields or travel between fields. New residents not used to living next to agricultural operations often complain about farm equipment on roads or odors related to farming. Retailers such as grain and equipment dealers, on which farmers rely, are often pushed out. Farmers can be tempted to sell out for financial reasons, or because farming just becomes too hard in the circumstances. And lastly–but importantly–as older farmers near retirement they sell their properties, too often to non-farmers. This means that new and beginning farmers have a hard time finding land, threatening the very future of agriculture. More often than not, the land prices in these areas have been driven up by the encroaching development making it impossible for new farmers to afford to buy a farm. 

Iowa has no active Purchase of Agriculture Conservation Easements program. Iowa does have a strong FarmLink program that connects seasoned and beginning farmers to keep farmers farming. 

AFT has maintained a presence in the Midwest since just after its founding in 1980, where it focuses on promoting sound farming practices and combatting climate change and protecting farmland. Midwestern farmers are facing new economic challenges, and efforts must be made to ensure farmers have access and technical assistance to implement sustainable agricultural practices.  

To sign up for a Farms Under Threat webinar about Iowa, click here. 

For a brief summary of national results and connections with climate change, food security and the economy:  National Media Release 



American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.5 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.