It Starts with the Land

The United States is blessed with an agricultural landscape that is remarkably productive. Until the 1970s, the conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses didn’t cause much concern at the national level. There was still plenty of land, and steady gains in crop yields made up for any loss of agricultural land. But in 1975, USDA raised the alarm about the adequacy of America’s agricultural land base to provide a continued supply of essential goods and services at a reasonable cost. As a result, USDA and the President’s Council on Environmental Quality agreed to sponsor an inter-agency study “of the availability of the nation’s agricultural lands, the extent, and causes of their conversion to other uses, and the ways in which these lands might be retained for agricultural purposes.”

This National Agricultural Lands Study concluded that the incremental, “piece-by-piece” conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural uses posed very serious long-term risks and was a matter for national concern. These research findings, coupled with workshops held across the country, raised concerns that led to the founding of AFT in 1980 and to the passage of the Farmland Protection Policy Act as a subtitle in the 1981 Farm Bill. At the same time, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service began to improve the data collected in its Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) to better track the conversion of farmland over time.

AFT’s Role

In 1986, AFT began using available national data to track the conversion of agricultural land due to development, and AFT used the 1987 agricultural census data and population census data to spotlight counties with high population growth and high agricultural productivity in a 1993 report. In 1997, AFT released “Farming on the Edge” using the 1982 and 1992 NRI and other datasets to show change. AFT updated this analysis in 2002. In 2007, AFT paired the National Land Cover Data with forecasts of the residential growth to show the potential impacts of future development. With each effort, AFT increased the accuracy and resolution of the mapping, leveraging improvements in the national datasets. And although different datasets and methodologies were used over time, the analyses repeatedly showed that our higher quality farmland lay in the path of development.

In 2015, AFT joined forces with Conservation Science Partners to begin work on the most comprehensive assessment ever undertaken of U.S. agricultural lands, with critical support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Much has changed since AFT’s earlier analyses, not only with our technical ability to identify and analyze changes, but on the land itself. We are losing farmland faster than we thought. and we are beginning to see loss due to changes in temperature and precipitation regimes and even sea level rise. There has never been a more critical time to take strategic steps to counter our losses based on sound understanding of the patterns and trends of threats to our agricultural lands.