Taking Private Land for Private Interests: The Agenda and Policies of the American Farmland Trust

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For years environmental organizations have called for curbs on the growth and development of cities and suburbs in order to preserve habitat and open space. In recent years however, calls for halting development have been heard for another reason, preserving farmland.

The single most vocal organization calling for the preservation of farmland is the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a tax-exempt Washington, D.C. organization. The AFT claims that the U.S. is losing one million acres of farmland a year. More importantly, the AFT claims that this loss threatens the food and fiber producing capacity of the nation. “The land, fruitful and ever abiding . . . is quietly vanishing,” declared AFT president Ralph Grossi. To address this purported threat, the AFT calls for agriculture protection zoning, growth management laws, and conservation easements, among other land use controls.

Hard evidence compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 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 50 years. In 1945, the USDA reported that there were slightly more than 450 million acres of cropland in the nation. By comparison, in 1992 there were nearly 460 million acres of cropland.

In other words, 24 percent of the U.S. was considered cropland in 1945, and 24 percent was used as cropland in 1992. A net change of zero. In addition, due to improved technology the increasing demand for food and other agricultural products is actually being met by harvesting 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 raise commodity prices. Such large scale idling programs suggest a surplus of farmland, not a shortage.

The AFT has claimed repeatedly in recent years that its 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 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, ultimately at the expense of farmers and landowners.