America needs to be wiser in its conversion of farmland into other uses, a new study finds.

Between 2001 and 2016 alone, 11 million acres of the nation's agricultural land — 4.4 million of them "nationally significant," or the nation's best land for food production — went for residential, commercial and industrial uses, according to the report from American Farmland Trust.

"Farmland is vital to this nation's food security, yet it continues to be paved over, fragmented or converted to poorly planned" non-ag use, the report said. Though the U.S. "holds the world's greatest concentration of fertile soil suited for growing food and other crops, only 39% is nationally significant land, which can reliably produce abundant yields for many decades to come, if farmed sustainably.

The loss of farmland is a familiar concern in agriculture, and one to which agriculturalists need to respond effectively, said Kevin Paap, a Blue Earth County, Minn., farmer and president of his state Farm Bureau.

"We need to be smarter about development," said Paap, who was asked by Agweek to comment on the report and conversion of farmland into other uses in general. His organization has been working for many years to protect ag land and interests, he said.

Every state in the nation has taken some action to protect farmland, but all states must do more, according to the study.

Among the potential steps identified by the report: land use planning programs, ag district programs that protect and encourage commercial ag, property tax relief for ag land and state leasing programs to make state-owned land available to farmers and ranchers.

The report identified two new trends, one positive and the other negative for ag land use. The former is a slowing of urbanization, which nonetheless remain a concern. The other trend is an increase in low-density residential, which includes large-lot subdivisions, open ag land adjacent to or surrounded by existing development and areas where individual houses or housing clusters are spread out along roads.

"We all recognize urban sprawl, but low-density residential land use has flown beneath the radar even though it is just as much a threat — now and in the future," according to the report.

Though conversion of ag land use is a national concern, the problem is particularly troublesome in southern states, the report said.

For its part, American Farmland Trust is taking a number of steps, including advocating for for stronger state and federal policies, promoting research-based decision-making, and establishing the National Agricultural Land Network, a network of trusts and government entities.

The new report showed that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is a hot spot for conversion of farm land into other uses, though it's happening elsewhere in the state, too.

"Wherever it occurs, we (agriculture) need a seat at the table and to be involved in the process," Paap said.

Areas of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Montana, typically near larger cities in those states, are losing farmland, too, the study said.

American Farmland Trust describes itself "as 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."

To read the report: https://farmlandinfo.org/publications/farms-under-threat-the-state-of-the-states.