Pressure easing on farmland conversion
By Stewart Truelsen
The Great Recession had many economic consequences, most of them bad, some still lingering, but the recession also helped slow the conversion of farmland to development. Typically, when farmland is developed it is turned into housing tracts, shopping malls, roads, other public works projects, golf courses and the like.
All of these activities were impacted by the recession. Single-family housing starts peaked at 1.7 million on an annualized basis in 2006. They are just now returning to the 1-million mark. Retail construction suffered a similar fate. New shopping center construction plummeted in 2009, and 11 percent of retail space was vacant. A recovery finally began last year. Recreational development also declined. According to the National Golf Foundation, more golf courses are closing than opening. A little more than a dozen 18-hole courses opened in 2013, while 157 closed.
Energy development has surged, but generally speaking it is compatible with farming and ranching because its surface footprint is small. It also benefits agriculture by spurring the rural economy.
The recession’s effect on farmland conversion was the opposite of its impact on development. The full impact hasn’t been completely captured yet in the National Resources Inventory, a survey conducted every five years, but a mid-cycle release reported that the annual loss of farmland to development was down 38 percent from the period preceding the recession.
At this point, the nation has around 300-million acres of prime farmland. This is farmland best suited to grow a crop because of soil quality, growing season and water supply. Not all farmland that is developed is prime farmland, thank goodness, but over a 25-year stretch, every state lost some of its prime farmland to development.
Now that economic growth is taking hold, does it mean that farmland conversion will accelerate? Not necessarily. Times have changed. Prime farmland is much more valuable today than it was in 1980, when farmland preservation first became an issue.
Since then, federal, state and local programs were added to assist with preservation through agricultural land easements. The public also has a greater awareness and appreciation of local agriculture, which could prove helpful. Farmers and ranchers are more engaged with the public through social media and this relationship builds support for maintaining a healthy agriculture.
Other trends also are favorable to reducing the pressure on farmland conversion. A recent analysis of housing trends found less interest in developing new suburbs and more interest in urban projects where transportation and public amenities are more accessible. Online shopping has taken a bite out of shopping malls, and big box stores are starting to be replaced by stores with smaller footprints.
Farmers have always said the best way to preserve farm and ranch lands is to make agriculture profitable enough to keep the land in farming and ranching. This maxim still holds true and is important for all of us.
Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.