John Phipps: Farmland Isn't Vanishing as Quickly as Some Think
February 17, 2020
Much of the land being developed is high value simply because it’s next door to a suburb – you really can’t tell much about the agricultural quality from the price because it’s determined by its location, not production. ( Farm Journal )
Ag media have a few topics that seem to never go out of fashion. One is “we’re paving over farmland”. While it is true, I think it is way overblown. Consider this headline, “31 million acres lost: development cuts into U.S. farmland”. Like many farmers one number I have vaguely memorized is the corn and soybean planted acres which is around 90 million each year, so the number 31 looks huge. However, it’s over 20 years, 1992-2012. Second, it seems only 11 million was prime farmland. So we are really talking about a half-million acres per year lost. Even with this clarification, these perennial scare-pieces border on unhelpful for several reasons.
Much of the land being developed is high value simply because it’s next door to a suburb – you really can’t tell much about the agricultural quality from the price because it’s determined by its location, not production. Second, here is a chart of planted acres over the last 90 years, courtesy of Purdue economist Jayson Lusk. Not only is it roughly constant, it’s hard to pick up any decrease in the last few decades.
These sensationalist headlines ignore two crucial problems: the affordable housing crisis in the U.S. and rights of landowners. While I agree that better economic and social policy would be to reform housing regulations to densify urban areas, that battle should be addressed directly, not by land control that threatens the rights of landowners to sell at their discretion. Such efforts have proven ineffective anyway. The US has a significant farmland loss problem from erosion, but America does not and never has had a farmland loss problem from development. This issue is really about ineffective housing and transportation policy.