What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Minnesota’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 Minnesota’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 Minnesota has some of the most nationally significant agricultural land that is at risk. 

The Midwest region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin holds some of the richest, most productive agricultural lands in the country. These seven 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 Minnesota’s and Iowa’s corn and soybean fieldsall of the Midwest states hold invaluable assets to America’s agriculture. 

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

From 2001 to 2016, 179,900 acres of Minnesota agricultural land were developed or compromisedthat’s over 11,000 acres annually. Using AFT’s PVR index, a new measurement of the productivity, versatility and resiliency of land, 79% of Minnesota’s agricultural land is considered “Nationally Significant,” or the land best suited for growing food and other crops. Over 85,000 acres of this land was converted in just 15 yearsWhen this high-quality land is impacted by development, intensive food production is pushed to more marginal lands where input costs are higher, crop yields are lower, and soils degrade more quickly. Farmers are challenged to make an adequate income and risk going out of business.  

“Letting our best agricultural land be overtaken by urban areas and low-density houses is a triple-whammy for Minnesota’s food system, economy, and environment,” said Dr. Mitch Hunter, AFT’s research director, who is based in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Our data shows exactly where this conversion has occurred—and also the way forward for new policies that protect the land and help Minnesota farmers stay viable.”   

The hot spots for development were the dramatic expansion around Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, but there was also substantial conversion around Rochester, Mankato, and MoorheadHowever, the threat is more than just urban sprawl. Minnesota’s agricultural land is disproportionately threatened by a new, more insidious kind of development identified by AFT through this research, termed low-density residential, or LDR, land use. LDR is insidious because it is not always immediately visible to communities and policy makers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response.  

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. 

In addition to these challenges, LDR also paves the way for further urbanization. In Minnesotaagricultural land in LDR areas is 43 times more likely to be urbanized than other agricultural land. 

How has Minnesota responded? 

Minnesota scored in the middle of all states for policies and programs that protect agricultural land from development, promote farm viability and facilitate the transfer of agricultural land. Minnesota helps to protect and retain agricultural land by offering property tax relief, known as the “Green Acres” program, and through Agricultural Land Preservation Programs that enable counties to identify and preserve blocks of agricultural land, with benefits for the farmers involved. Minnesota also has a Farm Link program, which helps keep land in agricultural use as farmers retire and transition their land. However, planning and zoning policies could be strengthened and there is currently no statewide effort to permanently protect agricultural land using conservation easements.  

Agricultural land—and agricultural producers—are critical to the future of farming in Minnesota.  

Minnesota’s top agricultural industries are corn, soybeans and hogs, and the state leads the nation in production of sugar beets, green peas, wild rice and turkeys. Suitable climate and soil types enabled farmers to generate over $18.4 billion from cash receipts in 2017. The National Agricultural Statistical Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported non-irrigated cropland cash rent averaged $163.00 per acre in Minnesota during 2019. This makes Minnesota one of the top 10 states with the highest cash rent per farmland acre in the nation. 

AFT has maintained a presence in the Midwest since just after its founding in 1980, where it focuses on promoting sound farming practices and combating 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 Minnesotaclick 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.