The latest data recently released by USDA shows that a significant amount of agricultural land continues to be lost to development and other non-farming uses across the United States. "The findings from the 2007 National Resources Inventory serve as a stark reminder that our nation's agricultural land base - and the benefits it supplies - is threatened by poorly planned development," says Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust.
The NRI is a survey of the nation's non-federal lands conducted by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in cooperation with Iowa State University since 1982. It documents natural resource conditions and trends, including the conversion of agricultural land to developed uses, and is the most comprehensive natural resource database in the nation.
According to the 2007 NRI, there were 4,080,300 acres of active agricultural land (crop, pasture, range, and land formerly enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program) converted to developed uses between 2002 and 2007. This represents an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.
An area the size of Illinois and New Jersey lost in last 25 years
More troubling, the nation has lost 41,324,800 acres of rural land to development between 1982 and 2007 - an area about the size of Illinois and New Jersey. Rural land includes active agricultural land, plus forest land and other rural land. Fifty-six percent of the rural land developed, or 23,163,500 acres, is identified as active agricultural land.
In addition, there was a nationwide 13,773,400-acre decline in prime farmland between 1982 and 2007. Prime farmland soils are best suited to produce food and other ag crops with the fewest inputs and the least amount of soil erosion.
During the 25-year span of the NRI, every state lost prime farmland. States with the biggest loss of acres included Texas (1.5 million), Ohio (796,000), North Carolina (766,000), California (616,000) and Georgia (566,000). The following states lost the greatest percentage of their prime land during the same reporting period: Arizona (36%), Nevada (34%), New Mexico (33%), New Jersey (30%) and Massachusetts (24%).
How much land is needed to meet future food, feed, energy needs?
"Based on the extent of farmland loss during the past 25 years we urge USDA to dig deeper and undertake a new National Agricultural Lands study," says Julia Freedgood, managing director of AFT's Farmland and Communities initiatives. "We need an updated assessment of the amount of ag land needed to meet the nation's future food, feed, fiber and energy needs."
More information from the NRI including the long-awaited state-level estimates of changes in land cover/use will be made available in coming weeks. State estimates for changes among land cover/use categories haven't been obtainable since the 1997 NRI. In 2001, NRCS began a switch to an annual or rolling NRI, but the agency did not have adequate resources to implement this change.
For more information on farmland loss and related issues
The more frequent, less complete surveys disappointed external users who had come to rely on the breadth and depth of the "five-year" NRIs. "We applaud NRCS' renewed commitment to the five-year NRI. This critical information will help states and communities understand what is happening to ag land, establish farmland protection goals and measure progress," Freedgood concludes. For more information on farmland conversion and ag land protection issues, contact the Farmland Information Center at 800-370-4879, extension 13. The center is a clearinghouse for information about farmland protection. It was created in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust. The Farmland Information Center resources are free to the public at www.farmlandinfo.org .
The NRI study shows soil erosion has been reduced by 43%
While it shows that more than one-third of all development of U.S. land has occurred during the past 25 years, the NRI study also evaluates progress being made in controlling soil erosion. And there is good news on that front. The NRI report shows soil erosion on cropland in the U.S. has declined by more than 40% during the past 25 years. The erosion information is also contained in this latest NRI report for non-federal lands, which was released at an event in late April marking the 75th Anniversary of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Deputy U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan made the NRI announcement. NRCS is the agency charged with ensuring that private lands are conserved, restored and made more resilient to environmental challenges.