Farmland Everywhere

To just about anyone who has driven non-stop from St. Louis to Denver it is practically inconceivable that American is running out of farmland. Yet that is exactly what one farm advocacy group is claiming.

The American Farmland Trust (AFT), a tax-exempt Washington, D.C. based organization has proposed a "Competition for Land Initiative" motivated by the claim that the U.S. is losing cropland to urbanization. The AFT claims that population growth and "spreading out," threatens the economy and disrupts local governments. "The land, fruitful and ever abiding . . . is quietly vanishing," declared AFT president Ralph Grossi. That’s not all. The AFT further claims that "Environmental quality and the integrity of our communities are being progressively degraded," presumably by the same causes.

Hard evidence compiled by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, however, clearly demonstrates that there is sufficient land available for agriculture, and that there is no threat whatsoever to the nation’s food producing capacity. One striking example is the change in the amount of cropland in the U.S. over the last 70 years. In 1925, the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that there were slightly more than 390 million total acres of cropland in the nation; almost all of it, more than 344 million acres, were harvested in 1924. In 1992, there were more than 435 million total acres of cropland, but less than 300 million acres were harvested.

Thus there was 11.5 percent more cropland available in 1992 than in 1925, but the demand for food and other agricultural products was met by harvesting 14 percent fewer acres. Moreover, the federal government in 1992 was renting about 40 million acres of cropland out of production—at a cost of more than $1 billion per year—to support commodity prices.

LAND USE BY TYPE 1945 vs. 1992

Source: "Agricultural Resources and Environments Indicators, 1996-1997, "United States Department of Agricultural Handbook Number 712, July 1997, p. 3.

The "Competition for Land Initiative" and other public policy proposals of the AFT are coercive responses to a non-existent problem. The AFT has claimed repeatedly in recent years that their land preservation policy proposals are voluntary and compensatory—and thereby "market-based" solutions. Ignoring the fact that there is no problem requiring national action, the AFT’s proposals are the exact opposite of market options. The core ideas of a market are that individuals enter and exit freely, and that they have freedom to choose what to do or not to do with their property.

Unlike true market — based programs, the AFT’s proposals are predicated on restrictive government actions to preclude free choices and hold down property values. Among the techniques that the AFT has proposed to protect farmland are such things as growth management laws, agricultural protection zoning, cluster zoning and mitigation ordinances.

Once landowners have been locked by the force of law into a situation where their land values are dramatically decreased, policies promoted by the AFT offer a small minority of them the "option" of surrendering their land development rights forever in exchange for a cash payment representing a tiny fraction of the property’s true worth.

The AFT is not serving the public interest, but rather the private interests of a small, elite segment of American society. Moreover, in addition to its mission to maintain the upper-class status quo, the group is making unsubstantiated and false claims to justify using governmental police powers to regulate—and effectively take—the rights of working landowners to use their land.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming CEI study Mandarins and Money: Taking Private Land for Private Interests: The Agenda and Policies of the American Farmland Trust, by James Riggle.