Quantcast

40 Acres of Farm Land in America Is Lost to Development Every Hour

Popular
James Braund / Getty Images

By Brian Barth

Picture bulldozers plowing up pastures and cornfields to put in subdivisions and strip malls. Add to this picture the fact that the average age of the American farmer is nearly 60—it's often retiring farmers that sell to real estate developers. They can afford to pay much more for property than aspiring young farmers.


Alarmed by this trend, environmentalists back in the 1970s developed the idea to pay retiring farmers to preserve their land in a natural state rather than sell out to real estate developers. Since then, thousands of nonprofit "land trusts" have sprung up to support the cause, 29 states now have funding programs to support them, and the federal government has offered a hefty tax break to landowners who sign a "conservation easement," which is legalese for a document that prevents a parcel from being paved over, in perpetuity, no matter who buys it.

For the most part, the movement has been a success. So far, it's kept more than 56 million acres out of developers' hands over the past four decades. But some in agricultural circles are concerned that conservation land is also being kept out of the hands of future farmers since traditional conservation easements don't require the land to be productively farmed, only preserved.

Holly Rippon-Butler, land access program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), a group working to make farmland more affordable and break down other barriers that face aspiring agriculturalists, says land trust properties may be off-limits to developers. However, they are becoming increasingly desirable among deep-pocketed individuals who are looking to establish hobby farms and equestrian estates, which are fair game under most conservation easements. "City folks who want to buy farmland for its idyllic qualities but not necessarily food production for market are a worrisome new piece of the larger land access issue," she said.

Vermont and Massachusetts have taken steps to counter that trend by making state funds available to land trusts looking to incubate actual farmers rather than, as the saying goes, "gentleman farmers"—the nascent raison d'être of the land trust movement, said Rippon-Butler. The NYFC intends to champion the concept nationally, starting in New York, where the demand for land from those who can afford second homes has driven rural real estate values up to $8,000 to $10,000 per acre and pushed monthly mortgage payments out of reach for anyone on a farming income. Earlier this year, the group helped craft the Working Farm Protection Act, legislation sponsored by New York assembly member Didi Barrett that will allocate state funding specifically for conservation easements that not only preserve the land but also require it to be farmed sustainably. The bill was signed into law by New York governor Andrew Cuomo in August.

The NYFC has embarked on a nationwide tour to push for similar funding programs in other states and to mentor local land trust groups that are looking to help young farmers access land, with or without government funding. In northwest Ohio, the NYFC is working with a 20-year-old land trust known as the Black Swamp Conservancy, which obtained funding from Toledo Community Foundation last year to start purchasing properties and making them available for rent at below-market rates to new farmers, who will eventually have the option to buy. "This is the new wave," said Chris Collier, conservation manager for the Black Swamp Conservancy. "There's a younger generation looking to get back to the farm, and we want to make it easier for them."

In Iowa, the NYFC has worked with the three-year-old Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), whose farming-based conservation easements drop the market value of the land by 45 percent. "The more you restrict how land can be used, the more you lower its value and, voilà, it becomes affordable," explained Suzan Erem, executive director for SILT. "It's a rather elegant solution to the problem."

Erem emphasizes that this is no quick fix: In three years, SILT has acquired five properties, which is "breakneck speed for a land trust," she said. Brokering a single conservation easement can be a years-long endeavor, so it will be a while before the architects of the land trust movement, version 2.0, can point to more than a scattering of concrete results. The good news is that, because of the very nature of conservation easements, the results are permanent. "We have a very long timeline in this movement," said Erem. "We're not thinking in terms of quarterly reports or seven-year profit margins; we're thinking in terms of seven generations."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Individual standing in Hurricane Harvey flooding and damage. Jill Carlson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Allegra Kirkland, Jeremy Deaton, Molly Taft, Mina Lee and Josh Landis

Climate change is already here. It's not something that can simply be ignored by cable news or dismissed by sitting U.S. senators in a Twitter joke. Nor is it a fantastical scenario like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 that starts with a single crack in the Arctic ice shelf or earthquake tearing through Los Angeles, and results, a few weeks or years later, in the end of life on Earth as we know it.

Read More Show Less
A pregnant woman works out in front of the skyline of London. SHansche / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Air pollution particles that a pregnant woman inhales have the potential to travel through the lungs and breach the fetal side of the placenta, indicating that unborn babies are exposed to black carbon from motor vehicles and fuel burning, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Teen activist Greta Thunberg delivered a talking-to to members of Congress Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate Climate Change Task Force after politicians praised her and other youth activists for their efforts and asked their advice on how to fight climate change.

Read More Show Less
Ten feet of water flooded 20 percent of this Minot, North Dakota neighborhood in June 2011. DVIDSHUB / CC BY 2.0

By Jared Brey

When Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle last October, it killed at least 43 people, caused an estimated $25 billion in damage and destroyed thousands of homes.

Read More Show Less
A protestor holds up her hand covered with fake oil during a demonstration on the U.C. Berkeley campus in May 2010. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The University of California system will dump all of its investments from fossil fuels, as the Associated Press reported. The university system controls over $84 billion between its pension fund and its endowment. However, the announcement about its investments is not aimed to please activists.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Forest fire continues to blaze in Indonesesia on Sept. 18. WAHYUDI / AFP / Getty Images

Nearly 200 people have been arrested in Indonesia over their possible connections to the massive wildfires raging in the nation's forest, officials said this week.

Read More Show Less

By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

World leaders have a formidable task: setting a course to save our future. The extreme weather made more frequent and severe by climate change is here. This spring, devastating cyclones impacted 3 million people in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Record heatwaves are hitting Europe and other regions — this July was the hottest month in modern record globally. Much of India is again suffering severe drought.

Read More Show Less
Covering Climate Now / YouTube screenshot

By Mark Hertsgaard

The United Nations Secretary General says that he is counting on public pressure to compel governments to take much stronger action against what he calls the climate change "emergency."

Read More Show Less