WASHINGTON — Smart growth and investment in America’s downtowns and main streets must occur now to secure the land that grows our food, according to American Farmland Trust’s new report “Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future” and the accompanying web mapping tool.
“It is urgent we safeguard the land that grows our food,” said Mitch Hunter, AFT research director and lead author of the report.
“In recent years, the global food system has been severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and widespread drought — pushing millions more people into severe hunger. The mounting effects of climate change and the rising global population will make it ever harder to ensure a stable food supply in the coming decades.”
AFT’s “Farms Under Threat” research has shown Americans are paving over agricultural land at a rapid pace. From 2001 to 2016, the United States lost or compromised 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland every day.
“Farms Under Threat” 2040 shows we are on track to convert over 18 million acres of farmland and ranchland from 2016 to 2040 — an area the size of South Carolina.
The report noted that it could get worse. If rural sprawl accelerates, America could squander 1 million acres of agricultural land every year and over 24 million by 2040.
AFT’s “Farms Under Threat” research has shown that by 2040, as many as 3.16 million acres — nearly 5,000 square miles of farmland — may be lost to urban and low-density conversion across the Midwest in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Those Midwest states make the top 10 list of states when assessing acres of farmland converted to urban development by 2040.
This loss will disproportionately impact smaller farms that often serve local markets with fresh produce, eggs, dairy and meat. Small and peri-urban farms also tend to incubate new farmers and are instrumental in navigating supply chain disruptions currently experienced at grocery stores across the nation.
By 2040, agriculture in the Midwest will also be significantly constrained by water due to impacts of climate change. As temperatures continue to rise in the Midwest, precipitation is expected to become more intense in late winter and early spring, followed by drier summer months.
The Midwest is also experiencing a market surge to meet renewable energy goals. These climatic factors will lead to increased flooding, compromised drinking water, reduced air quality and greater pressures on agricultural land.
Here is the report’s analysis on the “I” states:
If recent trends continue, 363,375 acres of Illinois’s farmland will be paved over, fragmented, or converted to uses that jeopardize agriculture by 2040. That represents an area nearly 2.5 times larger than the city of Chicago and equates to the loss of more than 1,500 farms and 3,400 farm jobs.
Will, Kane and Kendall counties will be the hardest hit, with Will County ranking second of all counties in the nation for loss of cropland due to urban development.
Illinois, a top producer of soybeans, corn and swine, could lose as much as 448,371 acres of farmland.
By encouraging smart development, investing in farmland easements and supporting the next generation of farmers, Illinoisans can save 211,400 acres of farmland. That’s equivalent to saving 1,900 agricultural jobs and $123 million in farm output.
Based on recent trends projected to 2040, 451,100 acres of Indiana farmland will be paved over, fragmented or compromised. This equates to losing 2,200 farms, $259 million in farm inputs and 4,400 jobs based on county averages.
The hardest-hit counties would be Hamilton, Lake and Hendricks. The state could lose as much as 602,200 acres of farmland.
By encouraging smart development, investing in farmland easements and supporting the next generation of farmers, Hoosiers can save 342,500 acres of farmland. That’s equivalent to saving 1,600 farms, 3,300 agricultural jobs and $197 million in farm output.
Under the current trend, Iowans will pave over, fragment or compromise 183,400 acres of farmland by 2040, equivalent to losing 600 farms, $144 million in farm output and lose 1,600 jobs. The hardest hit counties are Polk, Linn and Dallas. Iowa could lose up to 219,500 acres of farmland.
By encouraging smart development, investing in farmland easements and supporting the next generation of farmers, Iowa can save 102,500 acres of farmland. That’s equivalent to saving 300 farms, 900 agricultural jobs and $82 million in farm output.
Embracing Smart Growth
“The tools exist to save our region’s farmland. By embracing smart growth, protecting agricultural lands and supporting the next generation of farmers, we can save 1.8 million acres of farmland in the Midwest,” said Kris Reynolds, AFT Midwest regional director.
“Communities need to double down on protecting the land we have left, whether that’s through permanent farmland easements, land-use planning for smart growth, or property tax relief. This is an important opportunity to invest in urban density and limit the continued expansion of urban growth boundaries.”
Simultaneously, an aging farming population is retiring, potentially leaving 40% of America’s agricultural land with an uncertain future.
“Farms Under Threat” is AFT’s multi-year effort to advance cutting-edge solutions for farmland protection. AFT uses high-resolution spatial analysis tools to identify where agricultural land has been converted to urban and low-density residential land uses.
The 2040 report projects this data into the future to present three alternative development scenarios — “Business as Usual,” “Runaway Sprawl” and “Better Built Cities.”
The report shows that development choices have a significant effect on the future of farmland and ranchland and urges Americans to embrace “Better Built Cities” to safeguard local farms and ranches, bolster the global food system and improve the daily lives of people.
“Better Built Cities” is not just about saving farmland. Smart growth aims to make life better for folks living in cities and suburbs.
Businesses can thrive on walkable main streets, and families can live close to their daily destinations. A variety of transportation options including walking, biking and public transit can help reduce air pollution from cars while saving people — and cities — money.
Neighborhoods are more livable, with a variety of housing types and price ranges. Parks and greenways exist for recreation and respite, and abundant rural lands exist nearby to provide local food and access to nature.
“America will need more development in the coming decades as the population grows. Indeed, many states currently face a severe shortage of affordable housing. Compact development is the best way to address this need — and also the key to saving farmland and ranchland,” Hunter said.
“Likewise, we must meet our growing energy demand with renewable energy that benefits agriculture and rural communities, what AFT calls ‘smart solar.’ We will also need to establish programs to bring a new generation of farmers and ranchers on the land to produce food and steward the environment, as America’s aging farming population retires.”
Every American can help. “Better Built Cities,” the report explains, sees policymakers and land-use planners banding together with farmers, ranchers and concerned citizens. Developers can choose to revitalize urban spaces and build compact communities.
Citizens can attend county board meetings and promote land-use decisions that protect farmland and ranchland. Individuals can also support local land trusts, buy locally produced food and choose to live in compact cities and town centers.
Farmland and ranchland owners can protect their property with a permanent agricultural conservation easement which restricts development and guarantees their land becomes a legacy that feeds future generations.
The report explains realities and choices, mapped and analyzed. Citizens can view impacts to their communities and read about potential solutions, what they should ask of their government officials and ways they can participate.
“Agricultural lands in the U.S. grow an astounding array of food, fiber, biofuels and other raw materials. This abundance has made the U.S. one of the most food-secure nations in the world. Yet it can also mask vulnerabilities. For too many Americans, it is easy to brush off farmland loss or view it as inevitable. This puts our future at risk,” said John Piotti, AFT president and CEO.
“We need farmland not just to feed a growing population, but to provide essential ecological services that nurture wildlife, cleanse water and capture atmospheric carbon. If we remain on our current development path, we will ultimately run out of land to grow our food — but long before that, I fear we will run out of the farmland we need to heal an environmentally degraded planet.”