Vanishing Farmland

Are we paving over the breadbasket?


Who hasn't had the experience of driving from one city to another and finding the area in between increasingly urbanized? Where there used to be mile after mile of plowed fields in the spring and harvesters busy at work in the fall, now there is a well-entrenched "bedroom community" or, further out, homes springing up here and there. Or, taking "a drive out to the country," one finds that "the country" is a few miles farther away than it used to be.

So when publications such as Saturday Review, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and U.S. News & World Report lament the loss of prime agricultural land to "urban sprawl," as they have all done recently, it seems like a legitimate concern. The consequences, it is reported, will be dismal—failure to meet future food demand, a great loss of revenue from decreased agricultural exports, drastically increased food prices. Some scenarios are even bleaker. Radio and television news media have issued similar warnings. Just over a year after NBC News broadcast a two-part special report entitled "The Vanishing American Farm," ABC News aired their own two-part special report packaged as "America's Vanishing Farmland."

Many have taken these warnings to heart and now call for comprehensive land-use regulations, to be administered by local, state, or federal agencies. The American Farmland Trust (AFT), a recently formed private organization, for example, works "to stimulate and help initiate local organizations working to safeguard farmlands and to win broad public support for their efforts." According to an AFT promotional letter, such efforts—which are well under way in more than 200 counties—include zoning laws forbidding building on prime farmland, tax incentives for farmers, and efforts to "encourage the donation of easements, or land use rights, to local trusts."

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. What prompted the news stories and the subsequent reaction was a National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS) published last year. This two-year project, commissioned by President Carter and cosponsored by the US Department of Agriculture and the President's Council on Environmental Quality, concluded that each year three million acres of agricultural land are converted to other uses. Perhaps as an indication of the state of much American journalism, the study's findings were widely accepted without any effort to verify its statistics or to examine the definitions employed. The category of agricultural land, for example, included not only cropland, but forests, pasture and range lands, and a mysterious division called "other." Upon closer examination, "other" turned out to be house and barn lots, ponds, roads, wasteland, and land that had been sold to developers but may remain in agricultural use for an indefinite period of time.

If the media had in fact done even some cursory checking, they would have found that the study has been widely discredited in some circles of experts. Steve Hanke, senior economist on President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, has called the study "technically unsound." And Dartmouth economist William Fischel wrote on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times recently that the study's "basic problem" is that it "classified far more land as urban in recent years than was ever counted as urban in the past." It's as though, he noted, "the census takers had decided in 1980 to count dogs as well as people, and then had proclaimed a huge population increase since the census of 1970, when only humans were counted."

But Fischel was even more disturbed by "evidence that the analysts knew that there was something wrong with their data but did nothing to amend them." For example, he noted, "The widely repeated projection that Florida will have paved over all its good farmland by the year 2000 was found to be based on demonstrably false numbers." But no such evidence found its way into the widely referred-to NALS report.

In the final analysis, if definitions are carefully scrutinized, the NALS showed that only 675,000 acres of actual cropland per year were transferred to other uses during the last decade. That's approximately .16 percent of the total cropland inventory, well within the margin of error for such an estimate. But even this figure does not find universal acceptance in the scientific community. The Regional Science Research Institute attempted to confirm the statistics used in the study by employing independent estimates of rural land conversion since 1970 and, on this basis, found a substantially lower rate than the NALS claimed.

Defining agricultural land is not a difficulty limited solely to the National Agricultural Lands Study. The most widely used method of determining soil productivity is the land-capability classification system of the Soil Conservation Service, which was created over 40 years ago in response to the "Dust Bowl" days of the 1930s. The system was developed to point out the hazards and limitations of using soil on a long-term basis for cultivated crops; accordingly, it is based on soil characteristics that tend to create risks of damage or erosion, such as slope, stoniness, salinity, acidity, depth, permeability, water-holding capacity, and texture.

Experts on the subject all agree that the main advantage of the land-capability classification system is its nationwide use, making soil information readily available. The most serious limitation, however, is that productivity is not considered in determining a soil's capability class. Soil, while very important, is not the only factor in productivity. Climate, distance to markets, surrounding land use, ownership patterns, parcel sizes, management, disease, and insects all work to define what the land will yield. The system tells only the safest land for farming, not the land of greatest potential.

Other factors also make this issue less clear-cut than is commonly perceived. Stanley Miles, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University, says that very often farmland whose loss is attributed to urban sprawl is not lost to housing and shopping centers but has changed ownership from private hands to federal or state governments.

Lands with low soil fertility and/or a terrain unsuited to efficient use of modern machinery make up another large portion of abandoned land. Julian Simon, a professor of economics and business administration at the University of Illinois, explains that "high output has been obtained in large part with huge farm machines requiring flat land for efficiency. This combination of increased productivity per acre of good land and increased use of equipment adapted to flat land has made it unprofitable to farm some land formerly cultivated."

Those who are caught up in the panic over farmland conversion say that it is the prime land that most often falls victim to the developer's bulldozer. Prime land is described as the best land for farming. Flat or gently rolling, it is susceptible to little or no soil erosion. But in at least one state, the "prime" land theory just does not apply: in a 1977 address to the Soil Conservation Society of America, Charles Foster reported that 80 percent of the cropland urbanized in Massachusetts between 1951 and 1972 was of marginal quality and that the highest-grade soil was still available for crop production.

The assumption that often underlies the fear of urban sprawl and the loss of prime agricultural land is that farmland is a finite resource, but this is far from the truth. Between 1.2 and 1.7 million new acres of productive cropland are created each year by draining swampland, irrigating deserts, and clearing woodlands. By comparing the 1.2–1.7 million new acres to the 675,000 acres that go out of use, one must conclude that there actually is a net gain. Indeed, figures released by the Department of Agriculture confirm such a conclusion. Between 1974 and 1978 total cropland grew by 18.2 million acres, and the acreage from which crops were harvested increased by 65 million in the eight years from 1972 to 1980. Plantings of the major crops in 1981 totaled about 365.5 million acres, 8.6 million more than in 1980 and the most since 1944.

Not only is the area planted increasing, but the output per acre is steadily going up. Between 1950 and 1972 this country experienced a great increase in agricultural production even though farmers actually reduced the amount of cropland planted. During this period, the federal government paid farmers to "set aside" or idle between 37 and 65 million acres a year, but crop surpluses still remained a problem. By 1972 American farmers planted about 50 million fewer acres than they did in 1950, but total crop production was 149 percent of the 1950 level, and yields per acre reached 167 percent of the 1950 mark—a high surpassed only last year.

Between 1972 and 1975 an increased world demand for US food drew down the large surpluses characteristic of the previous decade and made possible a temporary suspension of the federal "set aside" programs. Since 1975, yields per acre have returned to their record levels of 1972, and no agricultural expert seriously doubts that production could be increased 50 percent with existing technology on existing lands if there was sufficient demand. With bumper crops in some commodities, cropland set-asides were reinstated in 1978.

One segment of the ABC special report on "America's Vanishing Farmland" described how a highway project was paving over 40 acres of a Vermont dairy farm. The commentator explained that the 40-acre loss meant a sacrifice of 100,000 gallons of milk annually. What was not mentioned is that, in 1981 alone, the government paid farmers approximately $2 billion for surplus dairy products and an estimated $23 million to store them. In addition to larger herds, better feeding and breeding practices have made the average dairy cow twice as productive as it was in 1950.

Those who are sounding the alarm over vanishing farmland also frequently imply that land switched to other uses cannot be reconverted to agricultural use. Again the evidence shows otherwise. In the northeast, for example, farm acreage has increased 10 percent since 1969, largely due to refarming lands that had been put to other uses. Because the cost of transporting agricultural products to the northeast from distant areas—California, in particular—rose during this period, it became profitable to reconvert abandoned farmland to agricultural use. It is not inconceivable then, that if in fact it became profitable to use developed land for agriculture—as it would be if some of the projected consequences of urban sprawl do come true—buildings, concrete pavement, asphalt, etc. could be cleared away to turn the land back into farms. After all, the technology to restore land to agricultural quality now exists.

It should now be obvious that the United States is in no danger of running short of either farmland or food. Rather, the real danger is in some of the possible consequences of government regulation in this area.

The media practice of referring to agricultural land in emotional terms such as "being lost," "vanishing," or "disappearing" tends to ignore the very mundane fact that the land was sold. Without any hint of coercion, many farmers have freely made the decision that the price offered was of more value than the land and its future returns. By definition, any program to limit development of arable land will result in a restraint upon such free decisions. Although most farmers want to remain on the land, they also want to be free to sell their property at a handsome profit.

In addition to being collateral for operational improvements, a farmer's land, as one authority close to the issue has pointed out, is often his "hospitalization plan, insurance policy, child's college tuition, or personal retirement fund" all bound up together. With restrictions placed on its development, land is less valuable for such purposes, and many creditors will be reluctant to use land as a basis for loans.

In California, Oregon, and other states where strict measures designed to preserve agricultural land have already been established, there is mounting evidence that such measures may in fact do much to discourage farming. In California, land that produces $200 an acre in gross sales is classified by law as "prime agricultural" property. Testimony before the state senate indicated that the law has worked to force land out of agricultural production: owners have not wanted to farm the land for fear that it would then be classified as prime agricultural property, which would curtail its use for other purposes.

In the past when conditions produced a bad crop in Oregon, harvesters could sell small parcels of land to satisfy their creditors. New ordinances, however, prohibit dividing cropland and often compel farmers to sell all their land (often at a loss) to avoid bankruptcy. Similar restrictions have made it impossible to build additional residences for relatives who wish to live and work on the farm.

Any new laws governing farmers' land use would join an existing mountain of regulations. In his book Wealth of Nations in Crisis, Ronald Nairn delineates the state of affairs: "If all the extant regulations in the U.S., directly or indirectly related to agriculture, were put into operation, then probably not a grain of wheat would be grown and neither would a steer be fattened." The flow of rules has now reached such a pitch (an estimated 8,000 for 1975) that no single person can keep up with the output, let alone the entire accumulation.

Farm owners would not be the only ones to feel the harsh consequences of land-use regulations. Potential homeowners stand to lose also.

In McHenry County, Illinois, a planning code forbids the construction of houses on lots smaller than 160 acres in agricultural districts. Says county planner Stephen Aradas, "The purpose of that is to stop people from building homes in an agricultural area. And it works." Also in Illinois, DeKalb County requires that land proposed for development first be shown to be economically unfarmable. These are examples of the kind of land-use regulation called for by such groups as the American Farmland Trust. Limiting the number of new homes built in undeveloped areas, however, is bound to put pressure on the prices of existing homes and of vacant land inside defined urban areas. This predictable result has been confirmed by Anthony Downs, an economist at the Brookings Institution. Oregon's comprehensive land-use planning, he found, may be contributing to an acute housing shortage and spiraling prices, which could negate other environmental and economic benefits. In an even stronger statement, the Heritage Foundation in 1974 found that such planning curtails development, prices many potential buyers out of the home-buying market, reduces competition in the real-estate market, weakens the tax base, and discourages diversity, variety, and experimentation in land use.

A common remark is that planning is a necessary, good, and rational thing to do. After all, businesses plan for the future, both long- and short-term. And individuals plan, budgeting for the weeks and months ahead, getting their estates in order and positioning personal investments to hedge the future and make their retirements more comfortable. So since rational human beings plan for the future, why shouldn't governments plan?

The difference between the planning that people and businesses do as individual entities and the planning done by government as a collective is very important. Economic planning and land-use planning do not simply attempt to achieve the modest goal of accommodating to the future. Rather, the goal is generally to shape the future to conform as closely as possible to the planning authority's conception of what constitutes an ideal state of affairs or what is "good" for "the public at large." In this instance, the authorities have decided that what is "good" for "the public" is to retain rural land as rural land.

Accomplishment of this goal hinges on future building being done in established urban areas. Planners seem to hold the view that the bulk of the population should be restricted to high-density cities and the rest of the countryside be left open for carefully supervised recreation and carefully managed agriculture and resource extraction. If this design is actually executed—pieces of it, it has been seen, already have been implemented at both local and state levels—the resulting mega-cities will have not only pollution and crime on a much grander scale than is now driving urban dwellers to small towns, but a plethora of other problems that can only be guessed at today.

In 1922 Supreme Court Justice Holmes said, "We are in danger of forgetting that a strong public desire to improve the public condition is not enough to warrant achieving the desire by a shorter cut than the constitutional way of paying for the change." Justice Holmes's prophecy is being proven true more each day, and it is this lack of respect for the constitutional right of private property by those pushing controls that is probably the most disturbing aspect of the whole controversy surrounding farmland.

R. Neil Sampson, executive vice-president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, has publicly advocated a new "land ethic" brought about by "education and social evolution" to change the way Americans think about land. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund calls for the emasculation of historical property rights in order to deal with "the problems of urban sprawl." And a 1973 publication by the federal government entitled The Quiet Revolution in Land Use Control makes the statement that landowners are really landholders "who must exercise stewardship for the benefit of the broader community and unborn generations."

A 1981 US Supreme Court opinion serves notice to governmental bodies that extreme care should be exercised when enacting land-use regulations that limit a property owner's rights. In the case of San Diego Gas and Electric Company v. City of San Diego, in which the utility brought suit against the city for changing 39 acres from an industrial to an agricultural zone, the corporation claimed that it had been deprived of the entire beneficial use of its property. Because of the technical error of a lower court, the Supreme Court withheld a decision. But Justice Brennan's dissenting opinion (joined by Justices Stewart, Marshall, and Powell) concluded that such downzoning, or other forms of prohibitory regulation that deprive an owner of all or most of the beneficial use of his property, could constitute an illegal taking even if the deprivation was only temporary. In such cases, the four justices held, compensation must be made. That there may be other members of the court who agree that excessive controls can constitute taking is indicated by the majority opinion, which ended by stating: "We are frank to say that the Federal Constitutional aspects of that issue (taking by regulation) are not to be cast aside lightly."

For most of this nation's history there has been a clear and almost undisputed notion of how land-use decisions are to be made: by the individual or corporate owner restricted only by laws that prohibit certain activities as immoral or antisocial but do not restrain the use of land as such. Like most of the earth's resources, farmland is limited only to the extent to which human creativity is limited. If demand is present, output will increase; if not, the land will be utilized for its next highest value—which should not be distressing when people are concerned not only about farmland and food prices but about increasingly scarce housing.

Faulty figures, misunderstood statistics, flawed studies, and unsound arguments account for much of the confusion on the issue of American farmland. When such sources as the NALS report and the American Farmland Trust disseminate inaccurate data, it is not surprising to find people's perceptions of "urban sprawl" solidified. What most people are totally unaware of is that of the total 2.3 billion acres of US land, less than 4 percent is now in urban use, and reasonable projections are that no more than 4 percent will be in urban use by the end of this century. By comparison, cropland now accounts for 21 percent of the land area of the United States. What all this leads to is the conclusion that "America's vanishing farmland" ought to be a vanishing concern.

Kelly Ross is a former aide to Sen. Mark Hatfield and is currently a member of the Board of Commissioners in Curry County, Oregon.