Policy Brief

The Vanishing Farmland Myth and the Smart-growth Agenda

Executive Summary

Contrary to conventional wisdom, urbanization is not significantly threatening national farmland or agricultural productivity:

  • Research shows that 26 percent of the decline in cropland can be attributed to urbanization. Structural changes in the agricultural industry, including declining profitability and shifting demand for agricultural products, accounts for the remainder.
  • Cropland-land used to produce food- has remained stable even as the amount of land in farms has declined.
  • Agricultural productivity is at all-time highs. The nation exports 46.6 percent of its domestically produced rice, 41.4 percent of its wheat, 36.5 percent of its cotton, 33.6 percent of its soybeans, and 16.3 percent of its corn for grain.
  • Most farmland conversion is to nonurban uses such as forests, pasture, range land, and recreational uses.

While urbanization does not significantly threaten the nation’s agricultural industry, current public policies tend to encourage the inefficient conversion of land to non-agricultural uses. Several market-oriented policy reforms can address land development issues and promote farmland preservation, including:

  • Privatizing or adopting full-cost pricing for infrastructure to ensure that new development fully pays its way and is not subsidized through general revenues;
  • Instituting developer provision of onsite infrastructure to ensure that new residents fully pay their way;
  • Purchasing the future development rights of farmland through private land trusts and conservation easements, or using tax-credit programs to encourage retention of farmland as open space;
  • Adopting cluster housing and other zoning reforms that allow for market determined densities, mixed uses, and preservation of open space to reduce pressures to develop farm land; and
  • Using nuisance-based standards for development approval to help depoliticize the land-development process and allow for the expansion of farm operations.
  • Repealing estate taxes to ease the transition of land and capital from one generation to the next.

These market-oriented strategies should strengthen the agricultural industry, help maintain productive farmland, and increase the preservation of open space while also preserving the dynamic ability of the real-estate market to determine when and how farmland should be converted to other uses.