The census counts land devoted to cropland, woodland, pasture and rangeland, and farmsteads and farm buildings, but does not track changes in rural land use, including acres lost to development.
“This latest census continues the steady decline of land in agricultural use as demand for agricultural products grows worldwide,” said Andrew McElwaine, President and CEO of AFT. “Globally we face the challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to feed the world’s population.”
States with the largest percentage declines in land devoted to agriculture were: Kentucky- 6.7 percent, Alaska- 5.4 percent, Georgia- 5.2 percent, Mississippi- 4.6 percent and Wisconsin- 4.1 percent.
Increases in land in farms were reported in 19 states. The largest percentage gains were in: Maine- 7.9 percent, Connecticut- 7.6 percent, Florida- 3.4 percent, Rhode Island- 2.6 percent, and Virginia- 2.4 percent.
But these upticks don’t tell the whole story.
“In recent years, we’ve developed more than 50 acres of agricultural land every hour,” said McElwaine. “Since 1982, we’ve converted 24.1 million acres—an area the size of Indiana and Rhode Island combined.”
Estimates from the latest National Resources Inventory—a nationwide survey of non-federal land conducted by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service—also show that every state developed rural land and lost cropland soil to erosion between 2007 and 2010.
According to an analysis by American Farmland Trust, each of the 19 states with more land in farms in the 2012 census also developed significant acres of rural land.
In Illinois, for instance, land in farming expanded by more than 162,000 acres between 2007 and 2012. In just three years from 2007 to 2010 as tracked by the NRI, development claimed more than 56,000 acres of the state’s rural land base of which 60 percent was covered by prime soils.
“We also lost farmland another way—in 2010 alone, more than 1.7 billion tons of soil eroded from our cropland,” said McElwaine. “You would need more than 15.6 million railway cars that would stretch around the earth almost eight times to haul all of that dirt.”
“The Census of Agriculture provides critical information about farm operations and operators, but neither states nor the federal government have invested in comparable systems to monitor the land base that underpins agriculture,” said Jennifer Dempsey Director of AFT’s Farmland Information Center. “It is critical to have more and timely data about changes in land use that will affect the future of agriculture, especially at the urban edge where there are tremendous opportunities for farmers but also intense competition for land.”
“We need to begin thinking about agriculture in three dimensions—keeping the resource available for farming; taking good care of the land; and supporting viability, which is integral to farmland protection and on-farm conservation,” said McElwaine. “Without addressing each aspect of agriculture, we will have less of a chance to meet the challenges we face in the future.”
For more analysis of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, visit AFT’s Farmland Information Center by going to www.farmlandinfo.org/statistics#Census of Agriculture.
The American Farmland Trust is the nation’s leading conservation organization dedicated to protecting farmland, promoting sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land.
American Farmland Trust will host the Farmland, Food and Livable Communities national conference in Lexington, Kentucky on October 20-22. Visit www.farmland.org/nationalconference for more information.
For more information on the policies and programs of the American Farmland Trust, visit www.farmland.org, follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AmericanFarmland or Twitter www.twitter.com/farmland.