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.


Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.