A prodigious amount of U.S. farmland continues to be converted to other uses. The American Farmland Trust estimates that between 2001 and 2016 more than 11 million acres were taken out of ag production.
While in the overall scheme of things this is a proverbial drop in the bucket — the total farm acreage is 915 million — development continues to chip away at the land that feeds us all.
Ultimately, as more land is turned into housing developments or hobby farms, and as the U.S. population continues to grow — 328 million people eat a lot — we will run headlong into the limitations of how much food farmers can grow.
Add to that the growing global population — 7 billion and counting — and sooner or later we will find out whether farmers can keep everyone fed.
Which brings us back to the land — farms, ranches and national forest and Bureau of Land Management allotments.
So often the arguments offered by critics of agriculture lean on the “logic” that some farms — large ones, primarily — are too efficient.
Now that’s a statement. It’s kind of like being accused of being too handsome or too beautiful.
Yet that’s the rub. Critics say that large farms use more water than small farms and large dairies produce more manure than small dairies.
Sure enough, that is true. But, assuming that the same amount of food, or more, will be needed by a growing population, it will have to come from an increasing number of animals and crops raised on ranches and farms. Whether they are raised on one 10,000-acre farm or 1,000 10-acre farms won’t make much difference.
Except for one thing. Any economies of scale will disappear, and the cost of production will increase. Whether the prices paid to those farmers will also increase to cover those costs is an unknown.
In the meantime, efficiency is the friend of the farmer — and the consumer. After all, if prices increase too much, it will directly impact consumers, particularly those who are low income.
So there is the conundrum. Taking agricultural land out of production is not just bad for farmers and ranchers. It’s bad for consumers and the rest of the world.
That’s why we need to keep close tabs on developers and others who see farmland and little more than shovel-ready for the next housing subdivision.
The protection of farmland must be taken seriously. Some states, such as Oregon, have worked to identify high-value farmland and protect it.
Land trusts and other organizations have also come up with means of protecting farmland by purchasing the development rights. This allows farmers and ranchers to continue, and even provides money to improve their operations.
All of which needs to be balanced against property owners’ rights.
Again, what’s really at stake is not only farms and ranches. Ultimately, what’s a stake is our nation’s ability to feed itself — and help feed the rest of the world.
Without debate, that is the most important value of agriculture. And doing it depends on land, efficiency, technology, research and plain old know-how.