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Preserving farmland in the face of urban sprawl

Al Gustin, writer

When the radio talk show host asked the mayor of one of North Dakota’s growing cities about the potential for additional growth, the mayor said he was confident, given the fact that there is plenty of open space to the north of the city. The radio host didn’t ask, and the mayor didn’t say, but that open space to which he referred is prime farmland.

When a group of market analysts was asked to explain why a government survey showed the nation’s farmers intended to plant a million fewer crop acres this year than last year, one suggested it might be because there is less cropland available, with more and more of it being “developed” every year.

The American Farmland Trust estimates that 175 farmland acres are “lost” every hour in the United States. The Trust says 31 million acres have been developed since 1982. That’s nearly equal to all of the farmland in North Dakota!

Urban sprawl has been talked about for decades. As early as the 1930s, I understand, regulations were being introduced to control urban sprawl and protect farmland. But there has been no concerted, national effort to do that.

Still, some people are very concerned. A recent news article explained that the state of Rhode Island has launched a first-of-its-kind program to buy farms at their appraised value and then sell them back to farmers at about 20 percent of market value. While farmers will get the land at a deep discount, the state will retain development rights. The idea is to make sure the land stays a farm. By the year 2060, the state of Rhode Island wants to produce half its own food.

It would seem logical that farmland preservation is more likely to be of concern on a local, county or even state level, especially among proponents of locally grown food.

This country exports half our soybeans and wheat, along with a sizable portion of other crop and livestock commodities. The productivity of America’s farmers and ranchers gives rise to issues of surplus, rather than shortage. Until that changes, it will be difficult to get broad national consensus that the loss of farmland is something that demands attention.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.