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Almost 31 million acres of farmland, double the amount previously documented, were lost to development from 1992 to 2012. (Blake Gumprecht/Forum News Service)

Lost farmland is a threat we can't ignore

A few years ago, I was driving near the outskirts of Fargo, N.D., the state's largest city and one that's grown steadily for decades. A person who didn't know much about agriculture was in the car with me.

As we drove, we passed a subdivision half-filled with newly built and still-under-construction houses. Around most of the subdivision were thriving fields of corn and soybeans; Fargo is in the heart of the the Red River Valley of the North, which boasts some of the world's finest farmland.

"It's nice to see new houses going up," the other person said.

My answer was something like, "Well, it's good for people who want more choice in where they live. It's good for construction workers. It's good for businesses that sell lumber and the other stuff that goes into the houses. That's all great. But we're losing some terrific farmland."

The other person looked at me as if I'd lost my mind and said, "There's all kinds of farmland."

"No, there isn't. We should be worried about that, and here's why," I said. The four- or five-sentence explanation I gave wasn't very articulate, but it was sincere and, I'd like to think, fairly knowledgeable.

All of us in modern agriculture recognize what's happening. Across this country — California to New York and in the Upper Midwest, too — our limited supply of irreplaceable farmland is being irrevocably diminished.

A report which I examine in a news article in this issue of Agweek documents the extent of the threat. That article has more numbers and details, but these statistics highlight the danger:

• Nearly 31 million acres of U.S. farmland, roughly the equivalent of all the farmland in Iowa, were lost to development from 1992 to 2012.

• Almost 11 million acres of U.S. farmland land best suited to intensive food and crop production were lost in the same 20-year period. That's roughly the equivalent of California's Central Valley.

Yeah, there's a lot of farmland. But we're sure losing a lot, too. Houses, strip malls, roads, golf courses, apartment buildings and more — individually they may be small, but collectively they add up. The equivalent of all Iowa farmland, for goodness' sakes!

(State- and county-level data isn't included in the report. But American Farmland Trust promises that data will be available in future reports; I'll watch for it and write about it as warranted.)

To be sure, the loss of farmland is mitigated somewhat by the ability of farmers and ranchers to produce more food per acre. One example: Average per-acre U.S. corn yields rose from 127 bushels in 1995 to 160 bushels in 2017.

But as the new report mentions, world demand for food and fiber will rise 50 to 70 percent by 2050. The United States, which has more than 10 percent of the world's arable land and an exceptionally productive food system, needs to play a leading role in supplying the additional food and fiber — a task obviously made difficult with less farmland.

American Farmland Trust has three main recommendations for protecting farmland: expanding federal investment in ag land protection; supporting U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies that monitor changes to ag resources; and enacting a "comprehensive 21st century agricultural land policy platform." The recommendations are explored further in the news article.

A role for us

I respectfully add that agriculturalists have a personal one-on-role role to play, too. When the opportunity arises, we need to gently and patiently tell people outside ag that losing farmland is a serious concern.

That's what I tried to do in the car that day with the person who insisted there's a lot of farmland. I didn't make a big difference, but at least I tried.

So should you.

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