Commentary: Farmland loss is a national crisis, and felt mightily in West

By Hannah Clark

American Farmland Trust

Anyone who has taken a recent drive in America’s western states can see first-hand what we at American Farmland Trust have been saying for years: our farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Between 1992 and 2012, 31 million acres of farmland and ranchland disappeared according to research from our recently released “Farms Under Threat” analysis — the most comprehensive study ever on agricultural land loss in the U.S.

While 31 million acres may not sound like a lot, at AFT, it set off alarm bells. It represents as much agricultural land as is in the state of Iowa. And, perhaps more importantly, 11 million of those acres were our best and most productive agricultural land — land most suitable for intensive food production with the fewest environmental impacts.

In a region so important to the nation’s food supply, AFT’s mantra and famous bumper sticker, “No Farms No Food,” is more poignant than ever. This region grows over 300 commodity crops, from apples and cherries, to potatoes, to sweet corn seed, to hops. It also has one of the fastest growing populations in the nation, and with that comes the demand for housing, shopping malls, schools, and highways — all resources that eat up farmland.

If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of local farmland and ranchland — not just for delicious food and as a pillar of our economy, but also for the many important environmental benefits it provides — we must come together as Westerners to take action now.

This was made abundantly clear in the recent article, “Western farmland continues to disappear,” by Brad Carlson in the Capital Press.

Let me reiterate and even illuminate important points made in Mr. Carlson’s article.

The numbers coming out of Idaho, as noted in the article, and the numbers coming out of the West in terms of farmland loss are downright scary. We need local and state officials to pay attention to this and to invest in funding and tools for farmland protection.

It is also important to consider how one allows development to happen. Planning is important. Urban sprawl and low-density development are both very damaging to farmland. It is easy to recognize urban sprawl and perhaps simplest to address, compact growth strategies have worked well in communities. Low density development poses an equal threat to farmland, but is insidious, often not recognized before it is too late. This is development that pops up in rural areas creating pockets of houses surrounded by farmland.

Not only does this kind of development chew up prime land, it makes it more difficult for farmers to farm and often leads to the disappearance of key farming services and infrastructure like equipment and seed dealers.

Investing in tools like agricultural conservation easements is also critical. Agricultural conservation easements are a way to keep working farmland and ranchland working, forever — by extinguishing the development rights on a property and compensating the landowner for the value of those development rights. The land stays in production and in private ownership and can be sold or handed down to heirs — but with the promise that it will not be taken out of agriculture.

These issues get more and more critical with a massive generational transfer of land on the horizon. In Oregon alone, two-thirds of the agricultural land will change hands in the next decade or so — and the majority of those landowners don’t have an identified heir or succession plan. Across the West, including in Idaho, AFT is advancing programming to help a new generation of new and beginning farmers access land.

We need to double down on protecting agricultural land in the West.

In Washington state, we’re calling on the legislature to continue investing in the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, the only state source of funding for farmland protection.

In Oregon, the legislature has an opportunity to fund the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which would be the first state funding source for agricultural land protection and supporting a new generation of farmers.

And in Idaho, we are calling on elected leaders, especially in the Treasure Valley, to ensure good planning to protect our land base — and invest in supporting farmers and ranchers.

Perhaps it’s even time to consider a funding source for agricultural conservation easements in Idaho. After all — No Farms No Food and perhaps even, No Future!

Hannah Clark is AFT’s Pacific Northwest region director. She previously served as the executive director of the Washington Association of Land Trusts, a statewide coalition of 28 land conservation organizations dedicated to private voluntary land protection. Get in touch with Hannah at