Volume 6, Number 16 - July 13, 2006
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Preserve ag lands
Conversions of farmland to urban uses represent less than 0.1 percent of U.S. farmland per year, according to a new report, yet all 50 states have enacted farmland protection programs and billions of dollars are being spent to preserve agricultural lands from development.
According to a report by the USDA Economic Research Service, local farmland losses continue to cause concern and motivate growing public support for farmland protection. The federal government, all 50 states, many local jurisdictions and over 1,200 land trusts and nonprofit conservation programs seek to maintain more land in farming uses than would otherwise be the case.
The report, “Rural Amenities: A Key Reason for Farmland Protection,” by Cynthia J. Nickerson and Daniel Hellerstein, notes that measures used to protect farmland include zoning, preferential tax assessments, agricultural districts, right-to-farm laws and purchase of development rights programs.
Currently, 19 states and 41 local jurisdictions operate PDR programs, which pay farmers to give up rights to develop their land. To date, state PDR programs have spent over $1.8 billion to protect almost 1.4 million acres of farmland, while local PDR programs have spent $762 million to protectan additional 241,000 acres. At the federal level, the 2002 farm bill authorized more than a tenfold increase in funding for the Federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program from about $53 million spent during 1996-2001 to $597 million authorized for 2002-07. Through 2005, the federal program hadhelped protect about 430,000 acres.
Noting that “the nation’s capacity to produce food and fiber is not at risk given present development patterns,” the report’s authors investigated which benefits, or “rural amenities,” the public seeks to preserve when they supported these programs.
“We found that farmland preservation programs in general seek to protect an array of rural amenities,” the report noted. “State and local governments use farmland preservation programs to protect a large numberof rural amenities. Analysis of the enabling legislation of farmland protection programs suggests that preserving open space, scenic beauty and cultural heritage are primary concerns for the majority of states that have farmland preservation programs.”
The report indicates that most farmland protection programs focus on maintaining agricultural viability, and that most programs favor protecting actively farmed agricultural landscapes rather than merely preserving open space.
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