What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Pennsylvania’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 Trust. The 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 generations. It 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.
Pennsylvania is a top performer on farmland protection, but still faces intense development pressure
Pennsylvania’s agricultural sector is very important to the state economy, worth $7.8 billion across 53,000 farms and ranches on more than 9 million acres of land. The land area dedicated to farming in Pennsylvania is larger than the total areas of at least eight states in the nation. More than 4.7 million acres of Pennsylvania agricultural land is considered “Nationally Significant,” 52% of all the land in the state—a very high percentage.
The Keystone State’s top agricultural products are milk and dairy worth $2 billion, poultry and eggs worth $1.7 billion and nursery and greenhouse worth $1 billion. Almost 70% of Pennsylvania’s farm income comes from livestock product sales. Milk is the most important commodity, with farmers providing 5.5% of the nation’s supply. Pennsylvania is the fifth largest milk-producing state. Pennsylvania ranks first nationally in mushroom production—farmers annually produce more than 570 million pounds of mushrooms, representing half of all mushrooms grown in the U.S.
From 2001-2016, 347,000 acres of agricultural land were developed or compromised, of which 187,000 acres were “Nationally Significant”—land best suited for growing food. Threats to land are threats to the economy. This level of development represents a potential loss of $298 million in annual revenue.
Hots spots for development were around Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
However, the threat is more than just urban sprawl. Pennsylvania’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, land use. Seventy percent of the land developed or threatened in Pennsylvania fell into this category. LDR development is insidious because it is not always immediately visible to communities and policy makers and therefore has yet to provoke a policy response.
We all recognize urban sprawl, but LDR development is a big problem. It is where you see housing developments popping up in and around agricultural fields (not suburban, but exurban and beyond that), often large–lot developments. In Pennsylvania, LDR development is six times more likely to be converted to urban high-density land use than other agricultural land as these acres melt away into the urban landscape.
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.
Committed state action is an essential response to the loss of farmland and ranchland. Pursuing multiple approaches and linking them together is the most effective path. Pennsylvania is a leader in the nation in strong policy response and coordinated action, ranking high across five of the six policies considered for this report as the most effective. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of farms and acres permanently preserved for agricultural production. The Pennsylvania Agriculture Conservation Easement Purchase Program enables state and county governments to purchase conservation easements from farmers. Since 1988, 5,675 farms have been approved for easement purchases totaling 579,940 acres in 59 counties. Additionally, its comprehensive planning policies, preferential tax program known as “Clean and Green” Agricultural Security Areas, and state leasing programs all play an important role in protecting valuable farmland from development.
“Pennsylvania is well-recognized across the country for its leadership in agricultural land protection. Innovative, coordinated and well balanced against the threat,” said Jamie Mierau, AFT Mid-Atlantic regional director. “But unfortunately development pressure continues unabated in the state. AFT looks forward to working with Pennsylvania officials and our partners in the state to continue aggressive efforts to preserve Pennsylvania’s farmland and ranchland and keep farming viable and productive in this important agricultural state.”
To sign up for a Farms Under Threat webinar about Pennsylvania, 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.