What’s at stake when we pave over, fragment and otherwise fail to protect Washington’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.
Washington’s Best Lands and Its Agricultural Identity are Under Threat
Agriculture is essential to Washington’s communities, economies and way of life. Agricultural land represents 36% of the state’s total land area, and with over 35,000 active farms and ranches, agriculture contributes $9.6 billion in revenue to Washington’s economy each year.
In Washington, expansion of cities, suburbs and exurbs threatens land best suited for growing our food. The report shows that, between 2001 and 2016, Washington lost 97,827 acres of farmland – an area nearly twice the size of Seattle. While this loss represents just a fraction of Washington’s total agricultural acreage – only .6% – it has threatened the state’s most productive farmland. Of the land lost to development between 2001 and 2016, 31% was considered “Nationally Significant” farmland, or land best suited for growing food.
Washington’s hotspots for farmland loss – for example, Whatcom, Skagit, Yakima, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, and Spokane counties – are near urban areas surrounded by prime farmland.
The research also reveals an alarming new threat: a land use category that has never been mapped before, which AFT is calling Low-Density Residential Development, or LDR. LDR refers to the process of farmland being converted to large-lot residential development, for use by farmettes and ranchettes, not working farms.
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.
“Farms Under Threat: State of the States” also digs deeply into states’ policy responses to farmland loss. The states that did best recognized the threat and addressed it with strong policies. Washington is one example, ranking in the top 12 states. Leaders like Washington, with its strong land–use program, have been effective in slowing development’s march by utilizing four of the six policies AFT and its experts identified as the most effective.
Yet while Washington’s land-use planning program serves as a model nationwide, more can, and should, be done. The growing demand on agriculture in the U.S. will require regionally diverse and resilient farm economies. At the same time, farmers are aging. In Washington, there are more than 5 times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 35. Washington needs to permanently secure its most productive, versatile and resilient farmland. To achieve this goal, state and local governments must develop a comprehensive set of policies and programs that address not just land protection, but also farm viability and the transfer of land to the next generation.
“The overall threat of farmland loss in Washington is deceptively low. While our agricultural lands are plentiful, our most productive, versatile and resilient soils are limited – and irreplaceable,” Addie Candib, AFT’s Pacific Northwest regional director, said.
To sign up for a Farms Under Threat webinar about Washington, 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.